The public on Thursday got a look at the most extensive report to date on how the U.S. Justice Department has used a 2001 anti-terrorism law to conduct Internet and electronic surveillance.
In four letters to Congress, totaling 61 pages, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant said the USA Patriot Act has "provided critical assistance to the efforts of the department and the administration against terrorists and spies in the U.S."
Powers awarded to federal police by the act have made it easier to obtain court orders to spy on cable-modem users, Bryant said. The act has also made it possible for FBI field offices to install wiretaps at Internet companies that are not in their jurisdiction, he said. In addition, airlines now receive full access to the FBI's list of suspected terrorists through a secure Internet site.
A section of the USA Patriot Act that encourages Internet providers to disclose confidential subscriber information to police in certain circumstances has already come in handy, the letters said, after a high school student posted a death threat online.
"The owner and operator of the Internet message board initially resisted disclosing...evidence on his computer that could lead to the identification of the threat maker," Bryant wrote, "because he had been told that he would be liable if he volunteered anything to the government. Once he understood that the USA Patriot Act (changed the law), he voluntarily disclosed information that led to the timely arrest."
The Justice Department's letters were dated July 26, Aug. 26, Sept. 20, and Oct. 4, but the House of Representatives' judiciary committee, which oversees the Justice Department and the FBI, did not release them until Thursday. Bryant's letters responded to dozens of questions posed by senior members of the committee, but they didn't offer many specifics.
The word "classified" appears in the letters 14 times, and Bryant repeatedly says that the bulk of the details on how the Patriot Act has been employed fall under the classification of "secret." The Justice Department said that only the House intelligence committee, members of which have security clearances and are sworn to secrecy, are permitted to receive those details.
In June, Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and John Conyers of Michigan, wrote a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking detailed questions about how the USA Patriot Act has been used by agents in the field. Sensenbrenner is the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee and Conyers is the committee's senior Democrat.
On Thursday, Sensenbrenner pronounced himself content with the Justice Department's reply.
"I am satisfied that the Department of Justice has produced answers that are sufficient for the committee's oversight and legislative efforts at this time," Sensenbrenner said. "These responses provide basic information regarding implementation of the USA Patriot Act that will permit the committee to understand how it is working in practice and to continue oversight of the use of these new authorities in the future."
One development in May that prompted Sensenbrenner's concern was Ashcroft's new guidelines that permitted the FBI more latitude in criminal investigations.
"Important safeguards of American privacy and freedom should not be significantly altered without careful consideration and a full explanation of the reasons for any changes," Sensenbrenner said at the time.
One substantial change made by the Patriot Act that has helped law enforcement, according to the Justice Department, is rewriting the law dealing with cable-modem surveillance. Until President Bush signed the law last fall, the government claims, cable companies were unwilling to disclose subscriber information.
"One particularly unfortunate case involved investigation of a suspected pedophile who distributed images of child pornography using a cable Internet connection and bragged that he was sexually molesting a minor," the Justice Department said in the letters. "Law enforcement agents obtained a court order...that commanded the suspect's provider to disclose the suspect's name and address, but the provider refused to comply with the order. A young girl was left at risk of sexual molestation for more than two weeks before investigators following other leads were able to identify and arrest the suspect."
A portion of the USA Patriot Act will expire in December 2005 unless Congress votes otherwise. Permanent sections grant police the ability to conduct Internet surveillance without a court order in some circumstances, secretly search homes and offices without notifying the owner at the time, and share confidential grand jury information with the CIA, the National Security Agency, and other intelligence organizations.
Also exempt from the expiration date are investigations underway by December 2005, and any future investigations of crimes that took place before that date.