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Drug Testing News
U.S. Uses Terror Law to
Pursue Crimes From Drugs to Swindling
Sun Sep 28 2003
By ERIC LICHTBLAU The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Sept. 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.
Justice Department (news - web sites) 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.
Justice Department 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 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 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.
Justice Department 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
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
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 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 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
Customs officials 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 (news - web sites)
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."
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 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 (news -
web sites), 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 (news - web sites), 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 (news - web sites), 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, he said.
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."