Anti terrorism powers
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Justice Department responds about anti-terrorism powers
Sensenbrenner to release replies to panel's questions
By CRAIG GILBERT
Last Updated: Oct. 16, 2002
Washington - After once threatening to subpoena Attorney General John Ashcroft for the information, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. plans to release Thursday the Justice Department's written answers to 50 questions that his committee posed about the government's use of its new anti-terrorism police powers.
The department responded to the last of the panel's questions and follow-up inquiries in recent weeks. Sensenbrenner, a Menomonee Falls Republican, provided those answers Wednesday to the Journal Sentinel.
"I'm satisfied for now" that Justice officials have responded to Congress, Sensenbrenner said in an interview Wednesday. But he promised "more questions" in the future.
What do the Justice Department's disclosures reveal about how the hotly debated USA Patriot Act has been used in the war on terrorism?
The department refused to make public some of its answers, saying the information is classified and would go instead to the intelligence committees of Congress.
One example: The department declined to say how many times the government had used its expanded authority under the law to obtain "roving" wiretaps on suspected individuals.
Nor would it say how many U.S. citizens had been subject to the new surveillance powers provided in the law.
In other cases, officials were more specific.
For instance, the Justice Department said that on 40 occasions, it had shared grand jury information involving foreign intelligence with other federal officials. Such intelligence sharing among different government agencies was liberalized under the new law.
Some disclosures anecdotal
Some of the department's disclosures about its new powers are anecdotal.
One provision of the new law allows Internet service providers to disclose communications to the government if they believe they are saving someone from death or injury by doing so.
The department said that had happened "several times" but said it could not be more specific.
But it described one case in which a high school canceled classes and bomb-sniffing dogs went through the halls after someone claiming to be a student "posted a death threat to an Internet message board in which he singled out a faculty member and several students to die by bomb and gun."
According to the Justice Department, the Internet provider, when the change in the law was explained, disclosed information that led to a student's arrest. The student confessed to making the threats, said the department.
The Justice Department said some new provisions of the law had been invoked in only a handful of times or not invoked at all.
For example, the act gives the government more scope in denying immigrants admission to the United States or deporting them on the basis of involvement in terrorist activity. Asked how many aliens had been denied admission under these new grounds, the department said only one, "as there is reason to believe he is a money launderer."
In the course of its answers, the department used both generalities and specifics to defend the value of the act's provisions to its investigations.
One question posed by the committee was how many terrorist attacks had been "prevented" since September 2001 and what provisions of the new law were used to do so.
The department responded that the answer "is impossible to know" but that the new law "strengthens our ability to detect and disrupt such plans in a coordinated and effective manner."
One of the law's more controversial provisions involves the attorney general's authority to detain suspected immigrants. But in its answers, the department said it had relied on "pre-existing legal authority" - not the new law - to detain and withhold the names of immigrants in its post-Sept. 11 investigations.
The department reported on its efforts to beef up certain key positions since Sept. 11, from the Border Patrol to foreign language interpreters.
It said it has received 65,000 applications for Border Patrol positions since September of 2001 and is "making selections at the rate of 1,000 per month."
In response to another question, the department reported that the FBI now employs 403 interpreters and translators in 25 languages and contracts with 658 others in 58 languages.
Since September 2001, the FBI has received more than 20,000 applications for contract linguist positions, the department said; the agency in the current fiscal year has hired more than 300 contract and staff employees with foreign language proficiency.
Asked if the answers demonstrate to him that the government's new powers are being used properly, Sensenbrenner said: "I can't say for sure the act is not being abused. That's why I fully intend right when the new Congress is seated . . . to draft another set of questions."
Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Oct. 17, 2002.