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Gonzales urges Patriot Act's renewal, says he's open to changes

WASHINGTON—Pledging conciliation with Congress, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told senators Tuesday that he would accept some modifications to the USA Patriot Act, but he urged that all its major provisions be renewed to effectively fight terrorism.

"Thanks in part to the act, we have dismantled terrorist cells, disrupted terrorist plots and captured terrorists before they could strike," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Acknowledging criticism from the right and left, Gonzales and FBI Director Robert Mueller said they wanted to assure Congress that the act's new search and surveillance powers had been used narrowly and not to monitor the reading habits or personal data of a broad range of people.

Gonzales also admitted that the Justice Department "took too long" to report to Congress on how the act had been used. He promised to "treat those who express concerns about the Patriot Act with respect and listen to their concerns with an open mind."

Several members of the committee said this conciliatory approach was in sharp contrast to John Ashcroft, Gonzales' predecessor, who refused to respond to requests for some records and once said that administration critics were indirectly helping terrorists.

"The attorney general has now announced that he too recognizes that our concerns are not so far-fetched," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who cast the lone Senate vote against the act, which gave the FBI broad new police and surveillance powers. "I welcome this sea change in the administration's attitude."

The Justice Department also released new information Tuesday on how the act has been used. Perhaps the most controversial section—allowing searches of such personal information as medical records and book selections at public libraries—has been authorized only 35 times by a special surveillance court, Gonzales said.

He said no library, medical or gun-sale search orders had been sought under the Patriot Act, though Mueller said later that the FBI had obtained some library records by request, without using the act.

Gonzales also said he was willing to modify the law to make it clear that the subject of a secret search warrant can consult a lawyer and challenge the warrant in court.

The attorney general may not have much choice in being more cooperative. When Congress passed the far-reaching Patriot Act six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it included a "sunset" provision to force a more thorough review of the new police powers.

Gonzales is the point person seeking re-enactment of 16 provisions in the bill, which would otherwise expire by the end of this year. He will also appear Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.

Senate Democrats aren't the only ones with qualms about the Patriot Act. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., closely questioned Gonzales and said he'd like to tighten some of the "very broad language" that allows "sneak and peek" searches in which a person isn't told about a search until days or weeks later.

Gonzales said those special searches had been used 155 times.

The administration also must counter the coalition of groups seeking some revisions in the act, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the American Conservative Union and gun-rights groups.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, also announced they will introduce a bill to restrict some provisions, including library and sneak-and-peek searches.

But Gonzales and Mueller were adamant that the Patriot Act was crucial in the war on terrorism and that some of the criticism of the act resulted from misrepresentation and misunderstanding.

"Critics suggest some provisions lack significant safeguards on searches and wiretaps, but that concern ignores considerable safeguards and limitations that are firmly in place," Mueller said.

The FBI director also said he would seek broader administrative subpoena power in terrorism cases, similar to the authority the FBI has in drug trafficking and organized crime cases.

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(Davies reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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