October 5, 2009
The Bush administration sold the PATRIOT Act’s expansion of law enforcement powers, including “sneak and peek” searches in which the target of the search is never notified that his home has been searched, as necessary to defend the citizens of the US from terrorist attacks, but that’s not how federal law enforcement has used its sweeping new powers.
According to a July report from the Administrative Office of the US Courts (thanks to Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post), of 763 sneak and peek search warrants issued last year, only three were issued in relation to alleged terrorist offenses, or less than one-half of 1% of all such black-bag clandestine searches. Nearly two-thirds (62%) were issued to investigate drug trafficking offenses.
The report also includes figures on existing warrants that were extended last year. When new and extended warrant figures are combined, the total number of warrants was 1,291, with 843, or 65%, for drug investigations. Only five of all new or extended sneak and peek warrants were for terrorism investigations. Of 21 criminal offense categories for which warrants were issued or extended, terrorism ranked 19th, exceeding only conspiracy and bribery.
As Grim noted, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), a leading critic of the PATRIOT Act, challenged Assistant Attorney General David Kris about why powers supposedly needed to fight terrorism were instead being used for common criminal cases.
“This authority here on the sneak-and-peek side, on the criminal side, is not meant for intelligence,” said Kris. “It’s for criminal cases. So I guess it’s not surprising to me that it applies in drug cases.
“As I recall it was in something called the USA PATRIOT Act,” Feingold retorted, “which was passed in a rush after an attack on 9/11 that had to do with terrorism it didn’t have to do with regular, run-of-the-mill criminal cases. Let me tell you why I’m concerned about these numbers: That’s not how this was sold to the American people. It was sold as stated on DoJ’s website in 2005 as being necessary – quote – to conduct investigations without tipping off terrorists,” he said.
“I think it’s quite extraordinary to grant government agents the statutory authority to secretly breaks into Americans’ homes in criminal cases, and I think some Americans might be concerned it’s been used hundreds of times in just a single year in non-terrorism cases,” the Wisconsin progressive continued. “That’s why I’m proposing additional safeguards to make sure that this authority is available where necessary, but not in virtually every criminal case.”