PHILADELPHIA - In the two years since
law enforcement agencies gained fresh powers to help them track down and
punish terrorists, police and prosecutors have increasingly turned the
force of the new laws not on al-Qaida cells but on people charged with
The Justice Department (news
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said it has used authority given to it by the USA Patriot Act to crack
down on currency smugglers and seize money hidden overseas by alleged
bookies, con artists and drug dealers.
Federal prosecutors used the act in June to file a charge
of "terrorism using a weapon of mass destruction" against a
California man after a pipe bomb exploded in his lap, wounding him as
he sat in his car. A North Carolina county prosecutor charged a man accused
of running a methamphetamine lab with breaking a new state law barring
the manufacture of chemical weapons. If convicted, Martin Dwayne Miller
could get 12 years to life in prison for a crime that usually brings about
six months. Prosecutor Jerry Wilson says he isn't abusing the law, which
defines chemical weapons of mass destruction as "any substance that
is designed or has the capability to cause death or serious injury"
and contains toxic chemicals.
Civil liberties and legal defense groups are bothered
by the string of cases, and say the government soon will be routinely
using harsh anti-terrorism laws against run-of-the-mill lawbreakers. "Within
six months of passing the Patriot Act, the Justice Department was conducting
seminars on how to stretch the new wiretapping provisions to extend them
beyond terror cases," said Dan Dodson, a spokesman for the National
Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. "They say they want the
Patriot Act to fight terrorism, then, within six months, they are teaching
their people how to use it on ordinary citizens." Prosecutors aren't
Attorney General John Ashcroft (news
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completed a 16-city tour this week defending the Patriot Act as key to
preventing a second catastrophic terrorist attack. Federal prosecutors
have brought more than 250 criminal charges under the law, with more than
130 convictions or guilty pleas. The law, passed two months after the
Sept. 11 attacks, erased many restrictions that had barred the government
from spying on its citizens, granting agents new powers to use wiretaps,
conduct electronic and computer eavesdropping and access private financial
Stefan Cassella, deputy chief for legal policy for the
Justice Department's asset forfeiture and money laundering section, said
that while the Patriot Act's primary focus was on terrorism, lawmakers
were aware it contained provisions that had been on prosecutors' wish
lists for years and would be used in a wide variety of cases.
In one case prosecuted this year,
investigators used a provision of the Patriot Act to recover $4.5 million
from a group of telemarketers accused of tricking elderly U.S. citizens
into thinking they had won the Canadian lottery. Prosecutors said the
defendants told victims they would receive their prize as soon as they
paid thousands of dollars in income tax on their winnings.
Before the anti-terrorism act,
U.S. officials would have had to use international treaties
and appeal for help from foreign governments to retrieve the cash, deposited
in banks in Jordan and Israel. Now, they simply seized it from assets held by those
banks in the United States.
are appropriate uses of the statute," Cassella said. "If we
can use the statute to get money back for victims, we are going to do
The complaint that anti-terrorism
legislation is being used to go after people who aren't terrorists is
just the latest in a string of criticisms.
More than 150 local governments
have passed resolutions opposing the law as an overly broad threat to
Critics also say the government
has gone too far in charging three U.S. citizens as enemy combatants, a power presidents wield
during wartime that is not part of the Patriot Act. The government can
detain such individuals indefinitely without allowing them access to a
And Muslim and
civil liberties groups have criticized the government's decision to force
thousands of mostly Middle Eastern men to risk deportation by registering
with immigration authorities.
"The record is clear,"
said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way
Foundation. "Ashcroft and the Justice Department have gone too far."
Some of the restrictions on government
surveillance that were erased by the Patriot Act had been enacted after
past abuses — including efforts by the FBI (news
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to spy on civil rights leaders and anti-war demonstrators during the Cold
War. Tim Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato
Institute, a libertarian think tank, said it isn't far fetched to believe
that the government might overstep its bounds again.
"I don't think that those
are frivolous fears," Lynch said. "We've already heard stories
of local police chiefs creating files on people who have protested the
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war ... The government is constantly trying to expand its jurisdictions,
and it needs to be watched very, very closely."
On the Net:
Justice Department: http://www.usdoj.gov
Civil Liberties Union (news
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