Patriot Act Use Expands
By Dan Eggen
The Washington Post
Wednesday 21 May 2003
Laws Invoked Against Crimes Unrelated to Terror, Report Says
The Justice Department has used many of the anti-terrorism powers granted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to pursue defendants for crimes unrelated to terrorism, including drug violations, credit card fraud and bank theft, according to a government accounting released yesterday.
In a 60-page report to the House Judiciary Committee, Justice officials also confirmed for the first time that nearly 50 defendants were secretly detained as material witnesses in connection with the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. The government has not previously characterized how many defendants had been held.
The report, issued in response to questions from House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), provides new details about the federal government's domestic war on terrorism, which has largely been conducted in secret and has prompted complaints from civil liberties advocates and Muslim groups.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Jamie E. Brown said in the report that anti-terrorism measures enacted after Sept. 11, including the USA Patriot Act and new prosecution guidelines from Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, have been crucial in disrupting terrorist plots.
"In our judgment, the government's success in preventing another catastrophic attack on the American homeland in the 20 months since September 11, 2001, would have been much more difficult, if not impossibly so, without the USA Patriot Act," the report states.
In one example, federal investigators have been allowed on dozens of occasions to delay telling targets about searches or seizures of their property, according to the report. The delays have lasted as long as three months, and prosecutors have sought extensions more than 200 times.
But the report plays down the government's use of some of the most controversial new powers. For example, the report said that fewer than 10 FBI field offices have conducted investigations involving visits to mosques, and all but one were connected to ongoing criminal inquiries. Immigration authorities also have not ruled any foreign nationals deportable or inadmissible as terrorists, the report said.
Although the Patriot Act was passed in response to Sept. 11, the report shows prosecutors have used many of the legislation's new powers to pursue cases not related to terrorism.
The report cites a case in which prosecutors were able to use the Patriot Act to seize stolen funds that a fugitive lawyer had stashed in bank accounts in Belize. Similar tactics have been used in cases involving drugs, credit card fraud, theft from a bank account and kidnapping, the report shows.
Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the report confirms fears that Justice and the FBI would abuse some of their new powers. "Many of these terrorism powers were actually being asked for as a way of increasing the government's authority in other areas," Edgar said.
The previously obscure material-witness statute, which allows prosecutors to hold potential grand jury witnesses, has emerged as a centerpiece of the federal government's anti-terrorism strategy. The Washington Post reported in November that at least 44 witnesses had been detained under the statute, but nearly half had not been called to testify before grand juries. Some also complained of erratic contact with attorneys.
The Justice report said that all of the material witnesses detained in connection with the Sept. 11 probe had attorneys. The report does not say how many testified before grand juries, and also does not indicate how many were detained in connection with terrorist probes not connected to Sept. 11.