NEW YORK TIMES– The Bush administration, which calls the USA Patriot Act perhaps its most essential tool in fighting terrorists, has begun using the law with increasing frequency in many criminal investigations that have little or no connection to terrorism.
The government is using its expanded authority under the far-reaching law to investigate suspected drug traffickers, white-collar criminals, blackmailers, child pornographers, money launderers, spies and even corrupt foreign leaders, federal officials said.
Justice Department officials say they are simply using all the tools now available to them to pursue criminals- terrorists or otherwise.
But critics of the administration’s antiterrorism tactics assert that such use of the law is evidence the administration is using terrorism as a guise to pursue a broader law enforcement agenda. Justice Department officials point out that they have employed their newfound powers in many instances against suspected terrorists.
With the new law breaking down the wall between intelligence and criminal investigations, the Justice Department in February was able to bring terrorism-related charges against a Florida professor, for example, and it has used its expanded surveillance powers to move against several suspected terrorist cells.
But a new Justice Department report, given to members of Congress this month, also cites more than a dozen cases that are not directly related to terrorism in which federal authorities have used their expanded power to investigate individuals, initiate wiretaps and other surveillance, or seize millions in tainted assets.
For instance, the ability to secure nationwide 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.
Justice Department officials said the cases cited in the report represent only a small sampling of the many hundreds of nonterrorism cases pursued under the law.
The authorities have also used toughened penalties under the law to press charges against a lovesick 20-year-old woman from Orange County, Calif., who planted threatening notes aboard a Hawaii-bound cruise ship she was traveling on with her family in May. The woman, who said she made the threats to try to return home to her boyfriend, was sentenced this week to two years in federal prison because of a provision in the Patriot Act on the threat of terrorism against mass transportation systems.
And officials said they had used their expanded authority to track private Internet communications in order to investigate a major drug distributor, a four-time killer, an identity thief and a fugitive who fled on the eve of trial by using a fake passport.
In one case, an e-mail provider disclosed information that allowed federal authorities to apprehend two suspects who had threatened to kill executives at a foreign corporation unless they were paid a hefty ransom, officials said. Previously, they said, gray areas in the law made it difficult to get such global Internet and computer data.
The law passed by Congress just five weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has proved a particularly powerful tool in pursuing financial crimes.
Officials with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement have seen a sharp spike in investigations as a result of their expanded powers, officials said in interviews.
A senior official said investigators in the last two years had seized about $35 million at American borders in undeclared cash, checks and currency being smuggled out of the country. That was a significant increase over the past few years, the official said. While the authorities say they suspect that large amounts of the smuggled cash may have been intended to finance Middle Eastern terrorists, much of it involved drug smuggling, corporate fraud and other crimes not directly related to terrorism.
The terrorism law allows the authorities to investigate cash smuggling cases more aggressively and to seek stiffer penalties by elevating them from what had been mere reporting failures.