Terror laws used for non terror activities
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US uses terrorism law in other crime probes
Report bolsters stand of civil liberties groups
By Dan Eggen, Washington Post, 5/21/2003
WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has used many of the antiterrorism powers granted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to pursue defendants for crimes unrelated to terrorism, including drug violations, credit card fraud, and bank theft, according to a government report.
In a 60-page report to the House Judiciary Committee, officials confirmed yesterday for the first time that fewer than 50 defendants were secretly detained as material witnesses in the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks. That number had not previously been disclosed.
The report provides new details about the federal government's domestic war on terrorism, which has largely been conducted in secret and has prompted widespread complaints from civil liberties advocates and Muslim groups. It had been sought by the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, and the committee's ranking Democrat, Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Jamie Brown said in the report that new antiterrorism measures, including the USA Patriot Act and new prosecution guidelines from Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, have been crucial in disrupting terrorist plots.
''In our judgment, the government's success in preventing another catastrophic attack on the American homeland in the 20 months since Sept. 11, 2001, would have been much more difficult, if not impossibly so, without the USA Patriot Act,'' the report states.
In one example, federal investigators have been allowed on dozens of occasions to delay telling targets about searches or seizures of their property, according to the report. The delays have lasted as long as three months, and prosecutors have sought extensions more than 200 times.
But the report plays down the government's use of some of the most controversial new powers. For example, the report said that fewer than 10 FBI field offices have conducted investigations involving visits to mosques and that all but one were connected to ongoing criminal inquiries. Immigration authorities have not ruled any foreign nationals deportable or inadmissible as terrorists, the report said.
Although the Patriot Act was passed in response to Sept. 11, the report shows that prosecutors have used many of the law's powers to pursue cases not related to terrorism. The report cites a case in which prosecutors were able to use the Patriot Act to seize stolen funds that a fugitive lawyer had stashed in bank accounts in Belize. Similar tactics have been used in cases involving drugs, credit-card fraud, theft from a bank account, and kidnapping, the report shows.
Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the report confirms fears that the Justice Department and the FBI would abuse their new powers. ''Many of these terrorism powers were actually being asked for as a way of increasing the government's authority in other areas,'' Edgar said.
The previously obscure material witness statute, which allows prosecutors to hold potential grand jury witnesses, has emerged as a centerpiece of the federal government's antiterrorism strategy. The Washington Post reported in November that at least 44 witnesses had been detained under the statute, but that nearly half had not been called to testify before grand juries. Some also complained of erratic contact with lawyers.
The report said that all of the material witnesses detained in connection with the Sept. 11 probe had lawyers. The report does not say how many testified before grand juries and also does not indicate how many were detained in connection with probes not related to Sept. 11.
This story ran on page A3 of the Boston Globe on 5/21/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.