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Attorney general admits use of Patriot Act in Mayfield case
PORTLAND - Since last May, when the FBI admitted it had wrongly arrested Portland lawyer Brandon Mayfield following the Madrid train bombings, the Muslim convert has contended that the Patriot Act was used to gain secret entry into his home and gather personal material which was used to portray him as a Muslim militant.
The Justice Department previously has denied using the Patriot Act in the Mayfield case - until now.
In a congressional hearing Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged that provisions of the act were used in the investigation against Mayfield - after denying it during the hearing, and then correcting himself when asked a second time an hour later.
"Senator, I think we have said publicly - if not, I guess I'm saying it publicly - that the Patriot Act was not used in connection with the Brandon Mayfield case," Gonzales told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on sections of the law set to expire at the end of the year.
More than an hour later, after Feinstein asked another question, Gonzales said he needed to correct his earlier answer.
"You asked me specifically about the Mayfield case and I'm advised that there were certain provisions of the Patriot Act that apparently were used," he said.
He named two sections of the code which he said were used - one that deals with extending the duration of electronic surveillance and another that makes it easier to get warrants to search the private residences of U.S. citizens.
Mayfield was arrested at his Portland law office on May 6 after an FBI computer matched his fingerprint to one found on a bag of detonators near the scene of the Madrid train bombings which killed 191 people. He was freed two weeks later, after the FBI admitted the fingerprints were not his.
Mayfield's attorneys and some legal experts believe the Justice Department has been reluctant to admit using the Patriot Act in the Mayfield case out of worry it would taint the 2001 law as its provisions come up for reauthorization.
"Why did the Department of Justice falsely deny doing this under the Patriot Act? Because this administration is more concerned with public relations than an honest scrutiny of the Patriot Act - a law which is the most dangerous attack on civil liberties since the McCarthy era," said Elden Rosenthal, one of Mayfield's lawyers.
Law professor Michael Greenberger, a counterrorism expert and a former Justice Department official, also thinks the U.S. government has been nervous about acknowledging a connection between the Mayfield case and the Patriot Act.
Greenberger said the Justice Department wants to "make this appear like a routine search consistent with a law that is not controversial," a reference to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"And they have now had to admit that they were dependent on portions of the Patriot Act which have aroused bipartisan concern," said Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
The Justice Department insists it is being up front with Congress about use of the Patriot Act.
Tasia Scolinos, spokeswoman for the department, said that on Tuesday Gonzales told the congressional committee hearing the Bush administration has used the Patriot Act's powers to listen to cell phone conversations and examine business records 84 times in 31/2 years.
"The Attorney General was forthcoming in his testimony on the Hill about the Patriot Act where he released new numbers about how this important anti-terror tool is being used and highlighted the civil liberties safeguards contained in the Act," Scolinos said in an e-mail to The Associated Press in Portland.
Last week, AP reported that a Justice Department letter to Mayfield's attorneys acknowledged the Patriot Act was used in the case.
The Justice Department asked for a correction, saying the report was erroneous - and that the authorizing law referred to in the letter was not the Patriot Act, but a 1995 amendment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
At Tuesday's hearing, Gonzales said that "in some sense 218" was used in the Mayfield investigation.
Greenberger said that Section 218 is a Patriot Act amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that makes it easier to get warrants to search a U.S. citizen's house, and raises serious concerns about constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure.