The New York Times has weighed in on the federal government’s use of the USA Patriot Act to pursue cases with little or no relation to terrorism. The story was covered earlier by the Associated Press. The Times notes that the law is being used against drug traffickers, white-collar criminals, blackmailers, child pornographers, money launderers, spies and corrupt foreign leaders. The Times says critics “assert that such use of the law is evidence the administration is using terrorism as a guise to pursue a broader law enforcement agenda.”
A Justice Department report to Congress this month cites more than a dozen non-terrorism cases in which authorities have used expanded power under the law to investigate individuals, initiate wiretaps and other surveillance, or seize millions in tainted assets. The ability to secure 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. The Justice Department said the cases cited in the report are only a small sampling of hundreds of nonterrorism cases pursued under the law.
Authorities used the law’s toughened penalties to press charges against a lovesick 20-year-old California woman who planted threatening notes aboard a Hawaii-bound cruise ship. The woman, who said she made the threats to try to return home to her boyfriend, was sentenced to two years in prison because of a provision in the Patriot Act.
Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way, a liberal group, said, “What the Justice Department has really done 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.”