Uses Terror Law to Pursue Crimes From Drugs to Swindling
The New York Times
September 28, 2003
27 — 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 even corrupt
foreign leaders, federal officials said.
officials say they are simply using all the tools now available
to them to pursue criminals — terrorists or otherwise. But
critics of the administration's antiterrorism tactics assert that
such use of the law is evidence the administration is using terrorism
as a guise to pursue a broader law enforcement agenda.
officials point out that they have employed their newfound powers
in many instances against suspected terrorists. With the new law
breaking down the wall between intelligence and criminal investigations,
the Justice Department in February was able to bring terrorism-related
charges against a Florida professor, for example, and it has used
its expanded surveillance powers to move against several suspected
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 which 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.
officials said the cases cited in the report represent only a
small sampling of the many hundreds of nonterrorism cases pursued
under the law.
The authorities have
also 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 this week
to two years in federal prison because of a provision in the Patriot
Act on the threat of terrorism against mass transportation systems.
And officials said
they had used their expanded authority to track private Internet
communications in order 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 apprehend two suspects who had threatened to kill executives
at a foreign corporation unless they were paid a hefty ransom,
officials said. Previously, they said, gray areas in the law made
it difficult to get such global Internet and computer data.
The law passed by
Congress just five weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11,
2001, has proved a particularly powerful tool in pursuing financial
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 last two years had seized about $35
million at American 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 the authorities
say they suspect that 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 crimes not
directly related to terrorism.
The terrorism law
allows the authorities to investigate cash smuggling cases more
aggressively and to seek stiffer penalties by elevating them from
what had been mere reporting failures.
say 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 terrorism.
In one instance,
agents citing the new law seized $1.7 million from United States
bank accounts that were linked to a former Illinois investor who
fled to Belize after he was accused of bilking clients out of
millions, federal officials said.
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," Mr. Ashcroft said last month in
a speech in Washington, one of more than two dozen he has given
in defense of the law, which has come under growing attack. "We
have used these tools to save innocent American lives."
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?"
legal director for People for the American Way, a liberal group
that has been critical of Mr. Ashcroft, said the Justice Department's
public assertions had struck him as misleading and perhaps dishonest.
"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 the convictions that the department classified as "international
terrorism" were wrongly labeled. Many dealt with more common
crimes like document forgery.
The terrorism law
has already drawn sharp opposition from those who believe it gives
the government too much power to intrude on people's privacy in
pursuit of terrorists.
Anthony Romero, executive
director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "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."
Senator Patrick J.
Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee,
said members of Congress expected some of the new powers granted
to law enforcement to be used for nonterrorism investigations.
But he said the Justice Department's secrecy and lack of cooperation
in putting the legislation into effect 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.
"We did not
intend for the government to shed the traditional tools of criminal
investigation, such as grand jury subpoenas governed by well-established
precedent and wiretaps strictly monitored" by federal judges,
officials say such criticism has not deterred them. "There
are many provisions in the Patriot Act that can be used in the
general criminal law," Mark Corallo, a department spokesman,
said. "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 garden-variety criminals."