US anti-terror law used against hackers, thieves

Secret searches

The enhanced search and surveillance powers Congress gave the Justice Department in the USA-PATRIOT Act haven't just been used in the war on terror: it turns out they're helpful in everything from spying on credit cards fraudsters to tracking down computer hackers.

On Tuesday lawmakers on the House Judiciary committee publicly released the Justice Department's written response to a laundry list of congressional questions probing law enforcement's use of the Act, which passed as an anti-terror measure in October 2001.

Though the questions were targeted at "the Department of Justice's efforts to combat terrorism," the answers displayed USA-PATRIOT's broader uses. One particularly versatile provision of the Act allows the FBI to use Carnivore-like tools to determine what Web sites an Internet user visits and with whom they correspond via e-mail. Agents can conduct such surveillance without a wiretap order or search warrant, as long as they certify that the intercepted information would be useful to a criminal investigation -- regardless of whether the surveillance target is suspected of wrongdoing himself .

According to the Justice Department's answers, this variety of Internet surveillance has been used in terrorism investigations, including the FBI's probe into the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. But it's also been invoked in cases involving a drug distributor, thieves who stole a victim's bank account information and used it to plunder the account, a "four-time murder," and a unnamed fugitive who "fled on the eve of trial using a fake passport."

Another section of the Act permits courts to issue special search warrants that the Justice Department can keep secret for a time, even after carrying out the search, if disclosure would seriously jeopardize an investigation. As of April 1st, 2003, the Department had applied for 47 of the so-called sneak-and-peek warrants, and the courts had granted every request.

In 14 of those searches, agents were also authorized to seize items; in one additional case, involving suspected credit card fraud, the court refused to allow agents to secretly take documents from the suspect's rented storage locker, "because it believed that photographs of relevant items would be sufficient."

Secret Searches

USA-PATRIOT also permits courts in one jurisdiction to issue search warrants for electronic records in other jurisdictions. While the Justice Department didn't say how often that power was used, the Department credited the provision with "dramatically" reducing the burden on courts that -- through luck of geography -- previously had exclusive federal jurisdiction over large Internet providers, such as the Eastern District of Virginia, home of America Online.

The Act also allows law enforcement to issue subpoenas to ISPs and phone companies to obtain the credit card or bank account numbers a customer uses to pay his or her bills - a provision the Justice Department credits for its quick tracing of unnamed computer hackers who "attacked over fifty government and military computers."

Room bugs, wiretaps and secret searches of suspected international terrorists and agents of foreign governments also became easier under USA-PATRIOT, which boosted the length of time the FBI could conduct such surveillance without court authorization to 72 hours in "emergency" cases-the old limit was 24 hours, after which the FBI would have to apply to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington to continue.

Attorney General John Ashcroft signed off on 113 such emergencies in the year following the September 11 attacks -- more than twice the 47 emergency authorizations issued in the previous 20 years combined.

Despite its lengthy responses, the Justice Department balked at answering some of the lawmakers' questions, including a query into how many people have been imprisoned as "material witnesses" in terrorism investigations without being charged with a crime. The Department argues that revealing the number would be "detrimental to the war on terror" -- though it does reveal that fewer than 50 people were detained as material witnesses in the September 11 probe.

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