Gonzalez said the Patriot Act has, at least in part, prevented a recurrence of the September 11 attacks by giving the Justice Department and the FBI the ability to capture suspected militants and disrupt their plots.
However, Gonzalez said he is ready to meet with both members of Congress and others to hear to suggestions on, in his words, "clarifying and strengthening the act."
For his part, Mueller said the Patriot Act has been invaluable in helping the FBI improve its intelligence and law-enforcement operations in protecting Americans:
"The FBI has made substantial progress in our ability to proactively investigate and prevent terrorism and to protect lives, while at the same time -- and as important -- protecting civil liberties. In renewing these provisions scheduled to sunset at the end of this year, Congress will ensure that the FBI will continue to have the tools we need to combat the very real threat to America posed by terrorists and their supporters."
Yesterday's hearing of the committee, which has oversight over the Justice Department, was for the most part cordial. Members of both parties said they were glad that Gonzalez is open to suggestions for improvement to the law. One member noted that his predecessor, John Ashcroft, refused to accept change.
But some members said the law could offer the opportunity to violate the human rights of suspected militants by allowing them to be held indefinitely without charge. It could also mean some suspected militants being sent back to their homelands for interrogation -- sometimes to face torture.
This repatriation is known as "rendition." Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat-Vermont), the committee’s vice chairman, twice raised his concerns about the subject.
The senator said that some of the potential destination countries routinely abuse prisoners, and he expressed concern that the United States might be complicit in that abuse.
Attorney-General Gonzalez replied that the Justice Department relies on assurances from such countries that the prisoners will not be abused.
Hypothetically, Leahy asked Gonzalez if in the past the United States would have accepted such assurances from Saddam Hussein when he was president of Iraq. He noted U.S. State Department reports that prisoners were routinely tortured in Iraq at that time.
Gonzalez said that was an extreme hypothetical case, so Leahy cited an actual case of sending a suspect to Uzbekistan. The senator quoted from the most recent State Department report on Uzbekistan's human-rights status, issued only a month ago.
"'Police, prison officials, and the NSS [Uzbekistan's security service] allegedly use suffocation, electric shock, rape, and other sexual abuse," it read. "However, beating was the most commonly reported method of torture. Authorities repeatedly and systematically applied torture including severe beating, suffocation, electroshock.' You think Uzbekistan's promise [that] it would not torture detainees [is] trustworthy or even credible?"
Gonzalez, flustered by the question, replied: "I think a country that would have that kind of record -- I think we would have to receive some very special assurances to satisfy ourselves, in meeting our legal obligations, that it was more likely than not that they would not be -- that someone that we sent over in their custody would not be tortured."
Senator Leahy pressed Gonzalez, asking what it is that Uzbekistan can do in questioning a detainee that the United States cannot. Gonzalez said he could not answer that question, but said the Bush administration gets credible assurances from the other countries that the suspects will not be mistreated.
After the hearing, one of its members, Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), said he and Senator Larry Craig (Republican-Idaho) plan to introduce a bill to restrict some of the powers the law gives to law-enforcement officials.
One part of the law targeted by Durbin and Craig is called the "library provision." This allows investigators secret access to any documents pertaining to a suspect, including his library records.
In his testimony yesterday, Gonzalez insisted that the "library provision" has been used only 35 times since the Patriot Act became law in October 2001, and never to obtain library records.
But many Americans aren't satisfied by such assurances, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, a leading advocacy group. It says five states and 375 municipalities have passed resolutions barring some provisions of the Patriot Act in their jurisdictions.