Published on Monday, September 9, 2002 in the Seattle Times
Secrecy Cloaks Patriot Act: Administration Loath to Spell Out How Law Being Used
by Frank Davies
WASHINGTON Ten months after it was passed because of the Sept. 11 attacks, the USA Patriot Act remains shrouded in complexity and secrecy.
The legislation, overwhelmingly approved by Congress after the White House demanded new tools to prevent the next terrorist assault, resulted in the largest expansion of police powers in decades.
Yet Americans know little about it, Congress is having difficulty getting questions answered, and Bush administration officials won't say how it has been used.
The act makes it much easier for government agents to monitor phones and computers, scour financial, medical and student records, investigate library use, conduct secret searches and detain noncitizens.
The CIA and FBI for the first time ever are allowed to mix foreign intelligence with law enforcement on U.S. soil. Citing the act, Attorney General John Ashcroft also authorized FBI agents to spy on domestic groups without having to show evidence of a crime.
The legislation is an amalgam of changes to dozens of federal statutes in 300 subject areas. Businesses, libraries, colleges and Internet service providers still have lawyers and consultants scurrying to decipher how they are affected.
Most of the act's track record is hidden from view and, with one important exception, its provisions have not been challenged in court.
The Justice Department has released only limited information on how the Patriot Act has been used to detain and deport noncitizens and freeze the assets of suspected terrorist groups, or how law enforcement has pursued search warrants that could mean snooping on citizens.
In Congress, the chairmen of the two judiciary committees that have oversight over federal law enforcement have complained that Ashcroft is not supplying important data about the use of the Patriot Act or the secret detention hearings of noncitizens.
The first judicial challenge to the Patriot Act has come from an unlikely source: the supersecret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes wiretaps and other surveillance of suspected spies and terrorists.
The court this summer ruled against the Justice Department's request to use the Patriot Act to allow counterintelligence agents and criminal prosecutors to work more closely together. The Justice Department is appealing the ruling.
Critics in Congress and civil libertarians, including some conservatives, say the Patriot Act was a classic case of overreach, threatening privacy and due process through new powers that the FBI and other agencies had sought unsuccessfully for years.
"What's really dangerous is this administration is using these powers with the attitude that because this is a war, it's not really the business of Congress, or in some cases, the courts," said Susan Herman, a constitutional law professor at Brooklyn Law School.
Bush officials defend the legislation. They say it has helped foil terrorist plots and has been used carefully. But they won't provide details.
"It's impossible to know exactly how many terrorist attacks have been prevented," assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant wrote the House Judiciary Committee. "The enhanced tools and information-sharing under the Patriot Act strengthens our ability to detect and disrupt such plans in an effective and coordinated manner."
There is no doubt the act is wide-ranging. The Treasury Department recently announced rules that tighten requirements on all financial institutions to check the identity of their customers and whether they appear on lists of terrorist groups and to report "suspicious activity."
The act also reduces privacy in libraries and threatens state confidentiality laws that protect book and computer use. Federal agents can easily obtain warrants to review a patron's reading and computer habits. Under the law, a librarian cannot disclose the request for records.
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company