Press Not Likely to Cheer Patriot Acts


This unsigned editorial appeared in the June 30 print issue of E&P.

Whenever a public official complains that the press is doing a poor job explaining a controversial issue, you can bet that the news media have nailed it for once. That’s especially true when the complainant in question is U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Like Dr. Frankenstein pleading the case of his monster, Ashcroft the other day entreated some two dozen newspaper editors, publishers, and news broadcasters to portray more “accurately” his draconian creation, the gallingly misnamed USA Patriot Act. For someone whose personal religious beliefs forbid dancing, Ashcroft did an awful lot of light-footing around the facts during his exhortation from the prestigious platform of an Aspen Institute conference.

According to a New York Times account of the session by Adam Clymer, Ashcroft urged the press to report that federal authorities have used only sparingly the sweeping powers they were granted under the Patriot Act to rummage through the records of libraries and bookstores, or bug every telephone a “person of interest” may happen to use. Even with this allegedly light use, Ashcroft said: “Over the past 20 months, the Patriot Act has become a critical reason for our success in the war against terrorists, stopping further attacks in the United States.”

Ashcroft provided no hard numbers for any of his assertions — let alone specifics that could be subjected to real public scrutiny. He also apparently failed to address the non-partisan General Accounting Office’s revelation that federal prosecutors built their “successful” record during the last fiscal year by wrongly classifying nearly half of their 288 supposedly “terrorism-related” convictions.

No doubt, the latest sales pitch was simply Ashcroft’s ham-handed way of softening up the press for the bruising lobbying ahead when he finally unveils his “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003,” better known as “Patriot Act II.” Unfortunately for the attorney general, newspapers have already experienced the consequences of Patriot Act I and the related Homeland Security Act: the closed immigration hearings, unreportable secret arrests, and whole categories of information suddenly placed off-limits. Newspapers know how much worse it could get under Patriot Act II, thanks to an analysis by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).

Consider this chilling scenario uncovered by ASNE: A reporter receives a page on her newspaper-issued Blackberry from someone the government is watching. Under Patriot Act II, authorities with just a single search warrant for just that page could seize all communications that are possible through that device, including the reporter’s entire e-mail archive.

Ashcroft is dreaming if he thinks he can convince the press to become clueless cheerleaders for Patriot Acts I and II.

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