Anti-terror law put to other uses

Eric Lichtblau
New York Times
The Arizona Republic

Sept. 28, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON - Federal authorities are using the USA Patriot Act in criminal investigations that have little or no connection to terrorism.

The government is using its expanded authority under the far-reaching anti-terror law to investigate drug traffickers, white-collar criminals, blackmailers, child pornographers, money launderers, spies, and even corrupt foreign leaders, federal officials said.

Justice Department 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 anti-terrorism tactics assert that such use of the law is evidence the Bush administration has sold the American public a false bill of goods, using terrorism as a guise to pursue a broader law enforcement agenda.

Justice Department officials point out that they have employed their newfound powers in many instances against terror suspects.

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 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 assets.

For instance, the ability to secure nationwide warrants to obtain e-mail and electronic evidence "has proved invaluable in several sensitive non-terrorism investigations," including an investigation into a computer hacker who stole a company's trade secrets, the report said.

Justice Department officials said they have pursued hundreds of non-terrorism cases under the law.

The law, passed by Congress five weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 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.

A senior official said investigators in the past two years have seized about $35 million at American borders in undeclared cash, checks and currency being smuggled out of the country, a significant increase over the past few years.

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.

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?"

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said members of Congress expected law enforcement to use some of the new powers for non-terrorism investigations.

But he said the Justice Department's secrecy and lack of cooperation have made him question whether "the government is taking shortcuts around the criminal laws" by invoking intelligence powers, which have differing standards of evidence, to conduct surveillance operations and demand access to records.


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