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Tuesday, April 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Bush calls for renewal of Patriot Act
By Mike Allen
HERSHEY, Pa. President Bush said yesterday he considers it vital for Congress to pass a permanent version of the USA Patriot Act, which has been criticized by some liberals and conservatives for giving the federal government too much power in the name of fighting terrorism.
Bush told a convention of Pennsylvania township officials that those concerned about the expanded wiretapping and surveillance powers provided by the act are laboring under a "false hope" about safety from terrorism.
"The Patriot Act defends our liberty," Bush said, repeatedly thumping the podium. "The Patriot Act makes it able for those of us in positions of responsibility to defend the liberty of the American people. It's essential law."
Bush made the case during his 27th visit to a swing state he lost in 2000 but has labored to capture in 2004. House Republican leaders have said they do not plan to take up the Patriot Act until next year. The law was enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and its most controversial portions are scheduled to expire in 2005.
Presidents usually stay out of state primary fights, but Bush made an unusual appearance last night at a Pittsburgh fund-raiser for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a 24-year veteran who faces a competitive Republican primary April 27 against conservative Rep. Pat Toomey. Specter, a moderate, has questioned the administration's use of the Patriot Act and has said the Justice Department needs more congressional oversight.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee, voted for the measure but now says the law "needs to be fixed." He has said the administration has "used the Patriot Act in ways that were never intended and for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism."
In an ad, the Bush campaign already has attacked Kerry for questioning the Patriot Act. Republican officials said that Bush plans to make the Patriot Act a central theme of his campaign to show his plan to combat terrorism and that he took specific action after the attacks.
Bush has used the vote to portray Kerry as a waffler. At the Specter fund-raiser, Bush said of Kerry: "If he could find a third side to an issue, I'm confident he'd take it."
When the Patriot Act was passed, lawmakers from both parties, including Kerry, said the sunset provision would allow Congress to ensure that the administration did not abuse its new power. But Bush asserted that by including an expiration date, Congress was saying that "maybe the war on terror won't go on very long."
Under the law, the government's expanded ability to monitor and search the belongings of people targeted in terrorism investigations includes conducting secret searches and seizing records from banks, libraries and other businesses without disclosing it has done so.
Bush said that the Patriot Act had solved an important problem identified last week by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks: that intelligence and criminal investigators believed they were prohibited from sharing some information, causing missed opportunities to unravel the plot.
"Different people had a piece of the puzzle. But because of law, they couldn't get all the pieces in the same place," he said.
Kerry's campaign said in a statement that Bush was trying to "rewrite history to show that the Patriot Act has been a cure-all for the intelligence failures that were exposed by the 9/11 attacks."
The Specter fund-raising reception generated $400,000. Republican officials said that because of the importance of independent voters in Pennsylvania, Bush would have a better chance with Specter than with Toomey.
The president listed areas of agreement with Specter but made it clear he was campaigning for himself as well as for the senator.
Toomey said in a telephone interview that Bush's appearance showed Specter's weakness, because he needed the president "to carry him over the goal line." But he added that he understands Bush's political obligations.
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