A Guide to the Patriot Act, Part 2

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 9 2003 6:30 PM

A Guide to the Patriot Act, Part 2

Should you be scared of the Patriot Act?

This is the second of a 4-part series about what's really in the USA Patriot Act. (Read Part 1 here.)

Section 218 aka "FISA: It's everywhere you don't want to be"

Section 218 amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a "bargain" struck in 1978 wherein the usual requirements for a police search—probable cause to believe a criminal act had occurred and a warrant—would be unnecessary in a teeny, tiny number of cases. That teeny, tiny number of cases just expanded dramatically.


What it does: Secret searches can now be authorized by a secret court without public knowledge or Department of Justice accountability, so long as the government can allege there is any foreign intelligence basis for the search.

The law before and how it changed: In 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act  created an exception to the Fourth Amendment's "probable cause requirement" for physical searches, wiretaps, and subpoenas of business records. FISA created a secret court that granted search warrants so long as a pleading before a closed court asserted that the "primary purpose" of the search or wire tap was to gather foreign intelligence. The warrant needn't be based on a suspicion of criminal behavior. But the target had to be "linked to foreign espionage." In theory, American citizens were safe unless they were suspected "agents of a foreign power." A good indicator of the objectivity of the FISA court: It rejected only five of the 14,000 warrant applications it received before 2001, although it recently became clear that many of those warrants were based on false allegations. The FISA court is not supposed to second-guess the government. These are not adversarial proceedings. Nor does the FISA court maintain ongoing oversight over the surveillance. Patriot amends FISA to allow searches when "a significant purpose" is intelligence-gathering. Not "primary," but significant. Now you can be subject to secret searches authorized by a secret court so long as there is any foreign intelligence component (and increasingly, drug-related offenses are deemed to have a terrorist component). Moreover, the party to be searched need not be connected to foreign espionage anymore. It's enough that the government may merely learn something about a terror investigation. Section 207 of the act lengthens the durations of FISA warrants to as long as 120 days in some cases. Finally, under the pre-Patriot FISA and Title III, fruits of FISA search warrants could be used only for information-gathering, not for prosecution. But now intelligence information obtained using FISA's lower standards for probable cause can be passed along for prosecution purposes.

How it's been implemented: Since Patriot expanded the small number of cases in which a FISA court might authorize a search warrant, the number of warrants issued has, unsurprisingly, risen slightly. The FISA court approved 1,228 applications for warrants in 2002, up from 934 in 2001 and 1,012 in 2000. (The number of warrants issued was consistently below 1,000 throughout the '90s.) When asked by the House Judiciary Committee in 2002 how many of these warrants met the "significant purpose" standard but would have failed to meet the "primary purpose" standard, the DOJ hedged, saying they'd kept no statistics on the distinction.

But the DOJ consistently argues that the principal impact of Section 218 lies not in the expanded applicability of the warrants, but in the way it has facilitated intelligence sharing. As the DOJ paints it, the pre-Patriot era was an icy one; criminal prosecutors and intelligence experts toiled away, rarely communicating with one another. There were protocols for sharing some information, but for the most part, "the metaphorical 'wall' between the intelligence community and federal law enforcement often precluded effective and indeed vital information sharing, perversely creating higher barriers in the most serious cases," as the DOJ told the House Judiciary Committee in May. Making no mention of the possible benefits of this divide—such as prohibiting prosecutors from building their case on warrantless searches—the DOJ crowed in the May report that Sections 218 and 504(a) brought this "artificial dichotomy" to an end, citing the February indictment of Sami Al-Arian—the University of South Florida professor alleged to be a leader of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell—as a prime example of what can be achieved when intelligence types and law enforcement officials log a few hours on a ropes course and really start working together. The allegations in the Al-Arian indictment were based on information collected pursuant to FISA but before the passage of Patriot. In those days, FISA protocols allowed for some information sharing. But criminal prosecutors and investigators were denied "full access to information obtained through FISA," according to the DOJ, and criminal and intelligence personnel were prevented "from coordinating their parallel investigations." Post-Patriot, once the wall was down, the Tampa prosecutors accessed information "which existed in the FBI's intelligence—but not criminal—files" and used it "to document the decade-long conspiracy that is alleged."

Eager to find similar prosecutorial applications for information gleaned in terrorism and intelligence investigations, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked U.S. Attorneys after Sept. 11 to review almost 4,500 intelligence files, and the DOJ reported to the House Judiciary Committee in May that "evidence or information from this review has been incorporated in numerous cases." Again, this allows prosecutors free range over materials obtained without a traditional warrant.

Would you know if Section 218 had been used on you? Only if you were later prosecuted using information gathered pursuant to a FISA warrant. Then you'd have the opportunity to try to suppress that evidence in a regular court proceeding.

Sunsets in 2005: Yes.


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