Attorney General John Ashcroft this week will launch a cross-country barnstorming tour designed to shore up support for the USA Patriot Act--the controversial measure passed after 9/11 giving the Justice Department broad new powers to combat terrorism. Over the next three weeks, Ashcroft plans to swoop into 18 cities, give speeches, meet local officials and grant select press interviews touting department successes using the law. In a conference call and e-mails last week, sources tell NEWSWEEK, the country's 94 U.S. attorneys were instructed to help gin up support by convening "community meetings," writing op-ed articles in local newspapers and ensuring that uniformed cops are seated in bleachers behind the A.G. during his visits.
Why? Ashcroft and his top aides are worried that a grassroots campaign to roll back the Patriot Act is gaining momentum. More than 140 local governments--including three states--have passed resolutions condemning the act as an infringement of civil liberties. Some of those resolutions even ban state law-enforcement officials from cooperating with the Feds on cases that use Patriot Act-authorized techniques. Just as alarming was last month's lopsided U.S. House vote forbidding Justice from spending funds to use the act's controversial "sneak and peak" provision that authorizes federal agents to conduct secret searches of homes and businesses. Alarmed that the anti Patriot Act movement was spiraling, and might torpedo internal Justice plans for even more expansive antiterrorism proposals, Ashcroft aides concluded they needed to strike back. One method, said an official, was "to roll out Ashcroft."
The anxiety at Justice is intensified by the fact that the anti Patriot Act campaign is being driven by a coalition that includes such diverse groups as the ACLU and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum. The House sponsor of the anti-sneak-and-peak amendment, for example, was GOP Rep. Butch Otter, an Idaho conservative, who told news-week his concerns were heightened when anti-abortion groups warned that abortion protesters could be targeted as "domestic terrorists." Justice officials say Otter and his supporters are grotesquely distorting what the law does, and that federal judges must still approve any secret searches conducted by federal agents. Ashcroft aides insist that if they could just get their message out, they are confident they will prevail--and tout recent poll numbers showing 55 percent of the public still backs the act. After you get past the interest groups, says one Ashcroft aide, "the rest of the country is saying, 'Just keep us safe'."