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Patriot Act: What's not known feeds debate

Bush officials say that controversial law-enforcement powers are working, and should be extended.

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Time isn't easing concerns over the enhanced law-enforcement powers of the USA Patriot Act, judging by the debate that's firing up on Capitol Hill over the renewal of its expiring provisions.

President Bush calls the Patriot Act an invaluable tool in the war on terror, but, until this week, little was known about where, why, or how often the law has been applied.

At the same time, confusion persists over what the law actually does. Critics sometimes conflate Patriot Act provisions with other controversial moves, such as indefinite detentions at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that have nothing to do with the act. Last week, Montana became the fifth state to pass a resolution critical of the Act. Since 2001, more than 375 local governments have passed resolutions criticizing the law or declaring "civil liberties safe zones" in a bid to discourage cooperation with the law.

But few cases of actual abuse of the law have surfaced. No one, for example, has come forward to claim the compensation provided in the law for abuse of civil rights. One reason, critics say, is that the most invasive powers of the Patriot Act are exercised secretly, some accompanied with gag orders. That means that a librarian, for example, who discloses a request for records under the Patriot Act could be subject to criminal prosecution.

"For these reasons, it has been extremely difficult to uncover information about how the Patriot Act has been used, and even information about whether particular sections have been used at all," wrote Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an April 5 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

New insights into law's use

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