WASHINGTON - Former Attorney General Janet Reno said her successor at the Justice Department should be working with Congress to improve the USA Patriot Act instead of giving speeches trying to justify it.
Reno also criticized Attorney General John Ashcroft for using individuals' library records to gain information on terrorist activities and the Bush administration for detaining terrorism suspects indefinitely without due process.
"The administration has done a lot [to fight terrorism] in regular federal judicial procedures," Reno said recently in a telephone interview. "I'm not at all clear why we cannot continue to use those procedures that are in the Constitution."
Ashcroft contends that the Patriot Act has been a highly effective tool since its passage shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But some lawmakers have joined local governments and civil-rights activists in arguing that it threatens privacy and civil rights.
The attorney general recently embarked on a monthlong tour of more than a dozen cities to speak in defense of the act. He also has asked federal prosecutors around the country to organize meetings to address public concerns about it.
But Reno said: "The better thing to do is for Congress and the administration - the executive branch - to get together and have good, comprehensive discussions so you know exactly what's been done . . . how things have worked. Big speeches don't help move the dialogue along."
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said in response that the agency has worked closely with Congress. In the last session alone, he said, it responded to more than 7,000 letters from members and gave hundreds of briefings to lawmakers and their staffs.
"It stretches credibility to suggest that the department has been unresponsive," Corallo said.
Leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees couldn't be reached for comment. But House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, told Ashcroft at a June hearing that he was pleased the department had provided "extensive responses" to a comprehensive list of questions about the Patriot Act.
Meanwhile, a conservative activist who has been critical of the act said the department appears to be listening more to critics.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he recently met with Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson to discuss his concerns. But Norquist added, "Before [Ashcroft] goes and tours the country, he should be talking to members" of Congress.
The Patriot Act expanded the government's power to inves tigate sus pected terror ists by broadening the circumstances in which tele phone wire taps, surveil lance and other methods can be used. Many of its provisions are set to expire in 2005, though some Republicans support making them permanent.
One of the act's most controversial features enables federal agents to obtain warrants to review records of the reading and computer habits of library patrons.
"It's one of the examples of something I don't see the need for," Reno said of the provision. "We ought to have access to [library records] under appropriate procedures. For the government to just go randomly look at what people are reading is wrong."
Corallo pointed out that no searches can be done without a judge's approval, and added, "I think the former attorney general would agree that as several of the 9/11 hijackers used public libraries in her home state of Florida to plot, plan and communicate in order to kill thousands of innocent Americans, a public library should not be a safe haven for terrorists."
Reno, who served eight years under former President Clinton as the nation's chief law enforcement official, had sought on several occasions to expand the federal government's powers to prevent terrorism. But she said she remains troubled about overreaching in balancing national security with civil rights.
A recent internal Justice Department report found that federal officials had violated the civil rights of some Arab and South Asian immigrants detained after Sept. 11. The report found that the department instituted a "no bond" policy for all detainees connected to the terrorism investigation, even though immigration officials questioned the policy's legality.
Meanwhile, at least two Americans suspected of terrorism-related activities - including "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla - are being held in military custody as "enemy combatants."
Said Reno, "It's important to make sure that we don't make the mistakes we've made in history, such as when we interned people in Japanese internment camps [during World War II] and it took us 40 years to acknowledge we had done wrong and 50 years to send letters of apology.
"We've got to ask hard questions. For example, we need to ask why people are being detained in military brigs while the courts are open - without being charged, without having access to lawyers and being held incommunicado for an indeterminate period of time."
Corallo, however, said the issue of immigrant detentions has been "overblown" and only a handful of cases were found to warrant further investigation. He also said the courts have upheld laws dealing with the detention of enemy combatants.
© 2003 The Plain Dealer