Devil in the Details

Patriot Act II, and Means to Weigh It, Emerge in Bits

The inspector general's report also revealed a widespread failure to leave a paper trail on serious policy decisions. Paper trails, history has shown, are crucial for holding public officials accountable. For instance, the inspector general could not document the source of the widely criticized "hold until cleared" policy, in which detainees were jailed—often in maximum-security conditions and with limited or no access to a lawyer—no matter how benign the facts of their case, until the FBI had cleared them. Clearance took an average of 80 days, or nearly three months, and as long as 244 days.

It was a wholesale suspension of liberty, in effect, a major decision that challenged core values of American law. Yet the policy "was not memorialized in writing, and our review could not determine the exact origins of the policy," the inspector general writes. Officials who were interviewed had inconsistent stories about what happened and who was responsible. Ashcroft, who tops the chain of command, "stated that he had no recollection of being advised that the clearance process was taking months, nor did he recall hearing any complaints."

For months congressmembers, legal advocates, and the press demanded to know how many detainees were trapped in prolonged detention. In the inspector general's report, the Justice Department's public affairs office explains that it refused to give out information "because the statistics became confusing."

Obfuscation hardly inspires confidence. Last week the administration set out to win over the skeptics. In an uncharacteristic show of self-criticism, it pledged to make reforms based on the inspector general's recommendations. Corallo told the Voice, "There were problems, and we can always do better." He stressed the monumental nature of law enforcement's task in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Within a week of the tragedies, the FBI reportedly received more than 96,000 tips or potential leads from the public. Now, Corallo said, "the FBI is absolutely better prepared."

Indeed, "hundreds of suspected terrorists have been identified and tracked throughout the United States," according to Ashcroft's report to Congress. "Most important, no major terror attack has occurred on American soil since September 11," he said.

This record is an indisputable triumph. Then perhaps even Ashcroft's supporters will not see the need to expand anti-terrorism laws further? Counters Corallo, "There are still weaknesses in our law that the terrorists can exploit"—as, in any free society, there are bound to be.

As people weigh the push for a Patriot Act II, Corallo urges them not to be swayed by the "heated rhetoric" of media critics and politicians. He advises citizens to read government documents—such as the text of the 2001 Patriot Act and the FBI's investigative guidelines, both available online—for themselves and to get their news from a variety of sources. Says Corallo, "There's so much information out there, you've just got to sift through it. This is America. The people decide."

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