Patriot Act Being Used for Non-Terror Crimes

In May, 2003, the House Judiciary Committee released a report from the Justice Department that acknowledged that the Patriot Act was being used for non-terror crimes. But it gave scant information about the details. The New York Times follows up:

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.

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 antiterrorism tactics assert that 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.

The Justice Department has not denied it is using the Patriot Act in routine criminal investigations:

Justice Department 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."

But would Congress have passed the Act had it known that was the Department's intention all along? Probably. In the aftermath of 9/11, we doubt e it would have made a difference. But it may make a difference now, as cooler heads prevail and opposition to the Act mounts among members of Congress. Senator Patrick Leahy is one of those upset by recent disclosures:

....the Justice Department's secrecy and lack of cooperation in implementing the legislation 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. "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, he said.

Here's more:

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 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.

We spoke with a reporter from The Guardian this week who is writing a similar article (not out yet to our knowledge,)-- hopefully, this is a sign that the issue will receive more media attention. The Patriot Act was passed in haste, without adequate opportunity for Congressional review. It was bad law then and details of its usage in non-terror cases only highlight the obvious: it's an end run around the Constitution, granting far too much power to the executive branch. When criminal activity is under investigation or suspected, Judges, not prosecutors, should be the overseers of search warrants and electronic surveillance.

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