On June 19, Attorney General John Ashcroft told editors and media executives at an Aspen Institute conference that the government needs the media’s help in “portraying accurately” the USA PATRIOT Act. The New York Times’ Adam Clymer reported (6/20/03) that Ashcroft stressed that public distrust of the law, passed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, was based on bad information. According to the Times, Ashcroft had a few suggestions; for one thing, media should emphasize that the Patriot Act “isn’t something new, this isn’t something different, this isn’t some vast incursion into the freedoms of the American people.”
The trouble with Ashcroft’s editorial suggestion is that the Patriot Act does grant the government new and different powers. Whether or not one favors the changes, the law does restrict U.S. civil liberties. Responsible reporting on the act would call it what it is.
Ashcroft’s request, just like the actual provisions of the Patriot Act, wasn’t widely covered. In fact, one could argue that the sparse, vague coverage of the act’s controversial measures did the Bush administration a favor. A FAIR review of coverage before the act’s passage found that “debate” was nearly invisible on the nightly network newscasts (Extra!, 11-12/01) What little coverage there was could hardly have been considered unfriendly to Ashcroft; ABC’s World News Tonight, for example, closed its report (9/21/01) with this comment: “As one veteran of World War II put it today, if you have to violate freedom to protect the masses, go ahead and do it.”
Although with coverage like that you’d think he’d hardly need to ask, getting reporters to obscure the FBI’s new access to library records was one of Ashcroft’s goals at the Aspen Institute conference. As the New York Times reported (6/20/03), “Ashcroft sought to quiet concern about the government’s access to library records and its use of so-called roving wiretaps on terrorism suspects.”
And indeed, the same Times reporter, Adam Clymer, joined Ashcroft in quieting concerns in a July 5 “Week in Review” piece. Clymer wrote that critics of the Patriot Act cite “the threat of the FBI rummaging through library and bookstore records, a practice for which there is scant, or no, evidence.”
But Clymer’s piece failed to mention a key point: The act forbids librarians from disclosing that they’ve been visited by the FBI or other law enforcement agents–making “evidence” of such visits hard to come by. Nonetheless, a survey conducted by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois found that in the year following the September 11 attacks, federal and local law enforcement officials visited at least 545 libraries; about 178 of those visits were from the FBI. Omissions of this kind are just the sort of help Ashcroft wanted.
Ashcroft’s Aspen comments were only the latest in what might be called the Justice Department’s proactive approach to media coverage of civil liberties. After the Bangor (Maine) Daily News (4/1/03) reported on a local librarian’s support for a bill that would limit the Patriot Act’s authorization of secret searches of library records and other formerly private information, Justice spokesperson Mark Corallo contacted the paper to label “completely wrong” (4/4/03) the assertion that the government could now search records without probable cause to believe that a crime had been committed.
In fact, as Deputy Attorney General Larry D. Thompson acknowledged in a December 2002 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Patriot Act changed that standard to “simple relevance” to an investigation. The paper chastised the government in an editorial (4/9/03) for trying to mislead.
This and similar incidents are documented in a July 2003 ACLU report, “Patriot Propaganda: The Justice Department’s Campaign to Mislead The Public About the Patriot Act.” The report lays out a number of exaggerations and lies that Justice Department officials “have consistently made in the media” and elsewhere regarding the act.
The report has received little coverage, although some of the misstatements it documents are shocking; the ACLU notes, for example, that some Justice Department officials initially claimed (Florida Today, 9/23/02) that the Patriot Act did not apply to U.S. citizens, which is simply untrue.
The ACLU report did inspire a pointed critique in the Houston Chronicle (7/11/03), which editorialized about Ashcroft’s false statements about the Patriot Act: “Ashcroft is wrong, and he knows he is wrong. In the alternative, he lacks the reading comprehension and legal skills required for his office.” If the case of the Bangor Daily News is any guide, the Chronicle might expect a phone call from the Justice Department.