Patriot Act's Reach Has Gone Beyond Terrorism
Washington DC - The Bush administration, which calls the USA Patriot Act perhaps its most
essential tool in fighting terrorists, has begun using the law with increasing frequency in many
criminal investigations that have little or no connection to terrorism.
The government is using its expanded authority under the far-reaching law to investigate
suspected drug traffickers, white-collar criminals, blackmailers, child pornographers, money
launderers, spies and corrupt foreign leaders, federal officials said.
Justice Department officials said they simply are using all the tools now available to them to
pursue criminals, terrorists or otherwise. But critics of the administration's anti-terrorism tactics
assert such use of the law is evidence the administration has sold the American public a false bill
of goods, using terrorism as a guise to pursue a broader law-enforcement agenda.
"Within six months of passing the Patriot Act, the Justice Department was conducting seminars
on how to stretch the new wiretapping provisions to extend them beyond terror cases," Dan
Dodson, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, told The
Associated Press earlier this month. "They say they want the Patriot Act to fight terrorism, then,
within six months, they are teaching their people how to use it on ordinary citizens."
Justice Department officials noted that they have employed their newfound powers in many
instances against suspected terrorists. With the new law breaking down the wall between
intelligence operations and criminal investigations, the Justice Department in February brought
terrorism-related charges against a Florida professor, for example, and it has used its expanded
surveillance powers to move against several suspected terrorist cells.
But a new Justice Department report, given to members of Congress this month, also cites more
than a dozen cases that are not directly related to terrorism. In them, federal authorities have
used their expanded power to investigate individuals, initiate wiretaps and other surveillance or
seize millions in tainted assets.
For instance, the ability to secure nationwide warrants to obtain e-mail and electronic evidence
"has proved invaluable in several sensitive nonterrorism investigations," including the tracking of
an unidentified fugitive and an investigation into a computer hacker who stole a company's trade
secrets, the report said.
Justice Department officials said the cases cited in the report represent a small sample of the
many hundreds of nonterrorism cases pursued under the law.
Authorities also have used toughened penalties under the law to press charges against a lovesick
20-year-old woman from Orange County, Calif., who planted threatening notes aboard a Hawaii-
bound cruise ship she was traveling on with her family in May.
The woman, who said she made the threats to try to return home to her boyfriend, was sentenced
last week to two years in federal prison for terrorism against mass-transportation systems.
Officials also said they had used their expanded authority to track private Internet
communications to investigate a major drug distributor, a four-time killer, an identity thief and a
fugitive who fled on the eve of trial by using a fake passport.
In one case, an e-mail provider disclosed information that allowed federal authorities to catch two
suspects who had threatened to kill executives at a foreign corporation unless they were paid a
hefty ransom, officials said. Previously, officials said, gray areas in the law made it difficult to
obtain such global Internet and computer data.
The law passed by Congress five weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has proved a
particularly powerful tool in pursuing financial crimes.
Officials with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement have seen a sharp spike in
investigations as a result of their expanded powers, officials said in interviews.
A senior official said investigators in the past two years had seized about $35 million at U.S.
borders in undeclared cash, checks and currency being smuggled out of the country. That was a
significant increase over the past few years, the official said. While authorities said they suspect
large amounts of the smuggled cash may have been intended to finance Middle Eastern
terrorists, much of it involved drug smuggling, corporate fraud and other nonterrorism crimes.
The law allows authorities to investigate cash-smuggling cases more aggressively and to seek
stiffer penalties by elevating them from what had been mere reporting failures.
Customs officials said they have used their expanded authority to open at least nine
investigations into Latin American officials suspected of laundering money in the United States
and to seize millions of dollars from overseas bank accounts in many cases unrelated to
Publicly, Attorney General John Ashcroft and senior Justice Department officials have portrayed
their expanded power almost exclusively as a means of fighting terrorists, with little or no mention
of other criminal uses.
"We have used these tools to prevent terrorists from unleashing more death and destruction on
our soil," Ashcroft said last month in a speech in Washington, one of more than two dozen he has
given in defense of the law that has come under growing attack. "We have used these tools to
save innocent American lives."
Internally, however, Justice Department officials have emphasized a much broader mandate.
A guide to a Justice Department employee seminar last year on financial crimes, for instance,
said: "We all know that the USA Patriot Act provided weapons for the war on terrorism. But do
you know how it affects the war on crime as well?"
Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way, a liberal group that has been
critical of Ashcroft, said the Justice Department's public assertions struck him as misleading and
"What the Justice Department has really done," he said, "is to get things put into the law that
have been on prosecutors' wish lists for years. They've used terrorism as a guise to expand
law-enforcement powers in areas that are totally unrelated to terrorism."
A study in January by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress,
concluded that while the number of terrorism investigations at the Justice Department soared
after the Sept. 11 attacks, 75 percent of convictions that the department classified as
"international terrorism" were wrongly labeled. Many dealt with more common crimes.
The terrorism law already has drawn sharp opposition from those who believe it gives the
government too much power to intrude on people's privacy.
"Once the American public understands that many of the powers granted to the federal
government apply to much more than just terrorism, I think the opposition will gain momentum,"
said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said members
of Congress expected some new powers granted to law enforcement to be used for nonterrorism
But he said the Justice Department's secrecy and lack of cooperation in putting the legislation
into effect have made him question whether "the government is taking shortcuts around the
criminal laws" by invoking intelligence powers - with differing standards of evidence - to
conduct surveillance operations and demand access to records.
Justice Department officials said such criticism has not deterred them.
"There are many provisions in the Patriot Act that can be used in the general criminal law," said
Mark Corallo, a department spokesman.
"And I think any reasonable person would agree that we have an obligation to do everything we
can to protect the lives and liberties of Americans from attack, whether it's from terrorists or