Patriot Act Redux
The original Patriot Act gave the government unprecedented powers by streamlining and relaxing warrant, investigative and detention requirements. It also granted federal agents expanded authority to track the flow of Internet and telephone communication.
For the first time, the Act allowed for information exchange among law enforcement and intelligence agencies as well as the limited transfer of information from traditionally secret grand jury proceedings. It authorized the use of various mechanisms to speed up deportation hearings and increased the time that the Immigration and Naturalization Service could detain non-citizens.
Additionally, the 2001 act enhanced the government's ability to conduct phone record searches, retrieve electronic evidence and use roving phone wiretaps across state lines.
Perhaps more significant, but less well known, has been the expansive application of legislation that predates 9/11. The attorney general took a rarely used and ambiguous section of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214., and made it a centerpiece of his counter-terrorism strategy. The controversial provision, which was later amended by the Patriot Act, punishes providing material support to terrorists without explaining what conduct constitutes such support.
Despite its ambiguity and some judicial criticism, Ashcroft has used the "material support" section in some of his most high-profile prosecutions, including those of John Walker Lindh; the Buffalo, N.Y., al Qaeda defendants; James Ujaama; and defense attorney Lynne Stewart.
Ashcroft's recently proposed reforms, introduced with his ominous rhetoric, might have been met less skeptically had they not come on the heels of his own inspector general's 198-page stinging report that documented serious problems in the detentions of illegal immigrants who had no apparent terrorist connections.
The detainees were held without access to attorneys or relatives for up to six months without formal charges — the average detention being 80 days. Many also were subjected to physical and verbal abuse from prison guards, according to the report; 515 of 762 were ultimately deported.
The report was yet another sign of eroding support for Ashcroft's agenda. Just the month before, the Senate rejected a Republican push to make permanent key parts of the Patriot Act that are scheduled to expire in 2005. Further fueling the climate of distrust was the fact that Ashcroft's efforts to lay the groundwork for expanding the Patriot Act were conducted in secret until his plans were leaked to news organizations through the Center for Public Integrity, which discovered draft memos dated January 9, 2003.