Exclusive: Ashcroft Defends Patriot Act

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been on a nationwide tour to promote the Patriot Act, a controversial counterterrorism law. Ashcroft sat down with ABCNEWS' Peter Jennings for an exclusive interview to discuss, in part, whether the Bush administration is sacrificing liberty for greater security.

The following is a transcript of the interview.

PETER JENNINGS: You've been in a number of places deeply associated with American history, and Federal Hall in New York today, deeply associated with the Bill of Rights. Does it make you think more deeply about this trip?

JOHN ASHCROFT: It's sobering to be where the individuals who crafted this framework of freedom did some of their very best work. And I'm one of those believers that it was a unique set of circumstances, providential in history that great minds of individuals who understood the balances that were necessarily for a society assembled the Bill of Rights, the Constitution. So, it's humbling. And obviously it causes you to think carefully about our responsibilities to both defend and sustain the, the framework of freedom.

JENNINGS: In every place that you have been on this trip you've been talking about the Patriot Act. I wonder if you felt a need to go on the road to defend it.

ASHCROFT: Well, I think there were misconceptions about it. And people need to understand what it does, and how important it is for the survival of our society. That we are taking these tools that have been available against organized crime and drugs, enterprises for a long time, we were, in the Patriot Act, making them available to the fight against terror. And so far I think it's helped for people to understand that a roving wiretap which was authorized for use against drug dealers in 1986 hadn't been available for use in the same robust way against terror, and the Patriot Act makes that ability to follow a terrorist in surveillance, even when he throw away phones and gets new ones, we're going to have to back to court to get a new order because he switches from one cell phone to another.

JENNINGS: I'd like to talk about the Patriot Act in some detail in a minute. But, in terms of your trip, you appear on many of these stops to have been talking to audiences which were already in your camp. They have been closed to the public. There has not been any real opportunity for you to interact with your critics. Do you think that's a good thing? Do you miss that opportunity?

ASHCROFT: Well, we provided a broad range of opportunities to discuss the Patriot Act. Each of our U.S. attorneys has a plan for things like town hall meetings and the like. My role was to be a part of thanking the anchor team of preventing terror, law enforcement communities. And I've been appearing with the law enforcement communities, and providing the thanks to them, and the motivation to them, and the explanation of the Patriot Act to that community.

JENNINGS: You apparently do not believe the Patriot Act has gone far enough. What do you mean?

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