Ashcroft's visit to Buffalo was a demonstration of security in action. These security precautions were taken against the public, who was not invited to the talk, and against the media, rather than against terrorists. Ashcroft avoided tough questions by granting three-minute sound-byte interviews were granted to television reporters and by refusing to speak to radio or print reporters.
Inside the conference room, a group of about thirty uniformed police officials, their badges gleaming, sat on a raised platform behind the lectern to serve as a scenic backdrop for Ashcroft. A display of ten flags behind the officers completed the image.
The audience rose en masse when U.S. Attorney Michael Battle, there to introduce Ashcroft, announced, "This is a great day for America."
To the audience's delight, Ashcroft referring to law enforcement personnel as the "doers, the achievers, the soldiers who put their lives on the line."
Ashcroft reminded the audience of the terrible events of September 11, 2001. He said that the purpose of the Patriot Act was to prevent a repeat attack. The work of law enforcement had become demanding, he said.
"Never have we asked more of law enforcement. Thanks to you, we are winning the war on terror," he said, pointing out that governmental action prevented Osama bin Laden's "murderous vision of America in flames" from being realized.
Ashcroft referred to the places where the terrorists struck with their airplanes as "consecrated ground." Quoting President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, he said, 'That from these honored dead,' said Lincoln, 'we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.' Ashcroft never mentioned that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.
According to Ashcroft, the Patriot Act has given the government the power to investigate terrorists without tipping them off to the investigation. He said that investigative tactics, such as delayed notification of search warrants, give law enforcement officials "time to identify associates" and arrest multiple suspects. And, it means that it's less likely that terrorists will flee, destroy evidence, or kill witnesses. He said that police now have more access to the business records of a person under investigation. "Every cop recognizes the value of business records," Ashcroft said.
Laws now keep pace with ever-changing technology, Ashcroft said. The USA Patriot Act permits the use of a roving wiretap against terrorism suspects who might switch telephone numbers or abandon a cell phone. This is a tactic that has been used against drug dealers and organized crime. "We can use it against the terrorist threat," he said, adding that government officials do not have to get one court order after another every time a suspect changes telephones. He also denied that this power could be abused. "We can't listen to anyone's phones."
Information sharing is another key feature of the USA Patriot Act, Ashcroft said. He said that "a seamless anti-terrorism team worked across jurisdictional lines" and captured a British citizen in Newark, N.J., who was attempting to sell shoulder-fired missile launchers to terrorists but who, instead, sold them to undercover FBI agents.
Ashcroft said that the Patriot Act has yielded results, with 255 individuals charged, 132 individuals found guilty or pled guilty to Patriot Act-related charges, 18,000 subpoenas and search warrants issued, and 250 new assistant U.S. attorneys hired. Among persons accepting plea deals after being charged under the Patriot Act were the "Lackawanna Six." In addition, more than 3,000 individuals around the world have been arrested. "Many more have met a different fate," Ashcroft said ominously.
To a standing ovation, Ashcroft concluded by saying, "We will finish the work begun on September 11."
At the end of the 25-minute talk, newspaper and radio reporters were ushered from the building. We went to watch the ongoing protest. Ashcroft had stated that the goal of the administration was to preserve lives and protect liberty, but both our experiences with the security precautions at the hotel and the street scene that we encountered revealed a different story.
More than 200 protesters filled the opposite side of Pearl Street, blocked off to traffic by a long line of parked police cars. Protesters were warned that they faced federal charges if they crossed the street.
Several individuals at the rally spoke with me. Pam Tritto said, "We need to stop handing over all of our power to a government that doesn't represent us." Bill Marx of Pax Christi said, "The administration claims that it's supporting democracy abroad, but it should do something about it here in America." He said that he has heard "horror stories" about the Patriot Act. He said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's comment, "The only thing to fear is fear itself" has been turned upside down "The administration is using fear to accomplish its assigned task for the corporate world."
Attorney Daire Irwin said that everyone invited to hear Ashcroft in person was "paid by the taxpayers, and the taxpayer was the only one excluded. It's hard not to be suspicious. Everyone in there is feeding at the public trough, and the only one not allowed in is the public. It's time to stop feeding the animals."
Jeanne-Noel Mahoney, local director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, "The move against the Patriot Act is very much strengthened by this morning's activities, such as Ashcroft's excluding the print media from asking questions. People are becoming aware that it's us who are paying for the speaking tour, and we are not invited to the talks." by Alice E. Gerard
Attorney General John Ashcroft's selling the Patriot Act to law enforcement officials coincided conveniently with the second anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America.
But Ashcroft's tour also came at a time when the government's handling of terrorism threats is being called into question. And, because of that, Ashcroft decided to take the Act on the road. He chose to sell the Patriot Act to the public in a most unusual way, by not speaking to the public.