Seeking to bolster support for the Patriot Act, the Justice Department provided Congress with details Tuesday of numerous cases in which the anti-terrorism law had been used.
The 29-page report is part of an effort by the Bush administration to discourage Congress from weakening the law, which critics say threatens civil liberties by giving authorities more latitude to spy on people. Key sections of the law expire at the end of next year.
Release of the document comes less than a week after House Republican leaders barely turned back an amendment that would have prevented the FBI from using authority under the Patriot Act to obtain library and bookstore records.
The report says that in the period starting with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and ending May 5, terrorism investigations by the Justice Department resulted in charges against 310 people, with 179 convictions or guilty pleas. The Patriot Act, it says, was instrumental in these cases.
Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing at a news conference with House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the report provided “a mountain of evidence that the Patriot Act continues to save lives.”
“The Patriot Act is al-Qaida’s worst nightmare,” Ashcroft said.
Results of information sharing
Among the specific examples:
- It allowed intelligence agents to share with FBI criminal investigators evidence that an anonymous letter sent to the FBI had come from a person with ties to al-Qaida. That letter began the investigation into an alleged terror cell in Lackawanna, N.Y., that has resulted in six guilty pleas.
- The same information-sharing authority was used against members of an alleged terror cell in Portland, Ore., that an undercover informant said was preparing for possible attacks against Jewish schools or synagogues. Continued surveillance under the Patriot Act of one suspect led to six others, who likely would have scattered or fled if the first suspect had been arrested right away.
- Terror financing provisions of the law were used in numerous cases, including charges against a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, on charges of being an unlicensed money transmitter. The same authority has been used to prosecute people illegally sending money to Iraq, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and India.
Powers permitted under the Patriot Act have also been used in investigations involving potential school bomb attacks, computer hackers, child pornography, violent fugitives and illegal weapons sales. In one case, electronic communications authorities of the Patriot Act allowed law enforcement agencies to identify a person who had sent 200 threatening letters laced with white powder in Lafayette, La., the department said.
No word on library, bookstore records
The report did not say whether the FBI had used its authority to obtain library or bookstore records. That information is classified, but Ashcroft last year issued a declassified statement saying that, up to that point, the power had not been used.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, accused the department of selectively releasing information about the Patriot Act and refusing to address concerns over civil liberties.
“Coupled with the department’s consistent record of exaggerating their record about terrorism, this entire report is suspect,” Conyers said.
Sensenbrenner said opponents were also guilty of being selective in information they use to undermine the law.
“The people who criticize the Patriot Act cherry-pick their contentions the same way,” he said.