Addressing two dozen editors, publishers, television executives and others, Mr. Ashcroft said, "We need the help of the news industry, the fourth estate, to inform citizens about the constitutional tools and methods being used in the war against terror. We need the media's help, for instance, in portraying accurately the U.S.A. Patriot Act."
He told a conference on "Journalism and Homeland Security," convened by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy research group, that complaints and misunderstandings about the act were so widespread that "I heard a fellow said his car wouldn't start the other day, and he blamed the Patriot Act."
In fact, he 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."
In particular, Mr. Ashcroft sought to quiet concern about the government's access to library records and its use of so-called roving wiretaps on terrorism suspects.
He said that critics of the law had "charged that under the Patriot Act the F.B.I. has arbitrarily visited local libraries to check out reading records of ordinary citizens."
"The fact is simply not that," he said. "The Patriot Act simply does not allow federal law enforcement free or unfettered access to local libraries, bookstores or other businesses."
Mr. Ashcroft said that warrants issued under the Patriot Act had to be approved by a judge. In contrast, when records, including library data, were sought by ordinary grand jury subpoena, no judge was involved.
The number of such warrants issued has been classified, despite objections by some in the Justice Department who argue that the low number of warrants actually served would help the department show it was not rummaging in library records. Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview on Wednesday that he had seen the classified figures and that only "a few" such warrants had been issued to libraries.
Mr. Ashcroft also asked the news media to explain more clearly the use of the roving wiretap, which allows the authorities to listen in on conversations no matter what telephone an individual may be using.
Mr. Ashcroft told the conference that such wiretaps had been used against drug crimes, health care fraud and racketeering for many years.
"Now I think it's important for the public to understand that this isn't something new, this isn't something different, this isn't some vast incsursion into the freedoms of the American people," he said. "This is a time-tested, law enforcement-honored, court-sanctioned and understood technique which is now being extended into the arena of terror."
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