Patriot II, Piece by Piece
By Jordan Smith, Fri., Jan. 9, 2004
While the so-called Patriot Act II -- a wish list of sweeping powers dreamed up last year by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to augment 2001's USA PATRIOT Act -- disappeared shortly after a draft copy was made public early last year, it did not die. In fact, on Saturday, Dec. 13 -- as news of Saddam Hussein's capture drove the news cycle -- President George W. Bush signed into law a bill that will allow the federal government broad access to individuals' financial records without a court order. This allows the government to sidestep decades-old financial privacy laws, all in the name of preventing terrorism.
House Bill 2417, the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2004, debuted in Congress last June, and was pushed back and forth between the House and Senate for nearly five months before finally making its way to Bush's desk on Dec. 2. The lengthy perennial bill authorizes appropriations for all intelligence-related activities and, on the whole, is fairly standard. However, the final bill was amended by the Senate to include a section that redefines and broadens the phrase "financial institution" -- an obscure yet sweeping change that, at least until challenged in court, will allow the federal government the ability to snoop into nearly every financial aspect of individuals' lives.
Previously, federal law enforcement officials could gain access to individuals' financial records from a bank only if those individuals were suspected of crimes and only after gaining the approval of a federal judge. But the new IAA not only allows the feds to snoop through financial records without a warrant and without demonstrating the person is actually a suspect in a crime, but also broadens the arena for snooping. The legal definition of "financial institution" previously referred only to banks. But now, the feds can examine financial records held by stockbrokers, car dealerships, casinos, credit card companies, insurance agents, jewelers, airlines, pawnbrokers, the U.S. Postal Service, and any other business "whose cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, or regulatory matters." Federal law enforcers need only draft a "National Security Letter" requesting the records in order to get them.
This change ultimately passed the U.S. House, but not before a handful of legislators -- including Texas Rep. Ron Paul, R-Surfside -- voiced stern opposition. "These expanded internal police powers will enable the FBI to demand transaction records from businesses ... without the approval or knowledge of a judge or grand jury," Paul said during a speech from the House floor on Nov. 20. "This was written into the bill at the 11th hour over the objections of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would normally have jurisdiction over the FBI. The Judiciary Committee was frozen out of the process. It appears we are witnessing a stealth enactment of the enormously unpopular 'Patriot II' legislation that was first leaked several months ago. Perhaps the national outcry when a draft of the Patriot II act was leaked has led its supporters to enact it one piece at a time in secret. Whatever the case, this is outrageous and unacceptable."
In the end Paul was one of 163 legislators (including fellow Texans Lloyd Doggett and Sheila Jackson Lee and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich) to vote against the entire IAA solely because of the draconian amendment. "How this will take effect and what the limits of it are will probably be fought out in the courts," said Paul spokesman Jeff Deist. So far, Deist said, the IAA amendment is the first of the so-called Patriot II measures to make its way into legislation, but he expects it won't be the last. "January is a whole new ballgame," he said.
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