As Attorney General John Ashcroft barnstorms the country to bolster support for the controversial USA Patriot Act, a new bill is quietly circulating on Capitol Hill to give even greater powers to law enforcement — in the name of fighting drug trafficking.
ABCNEWS.com has obtained a draft of the Vital Interdiction of Criminal Terrorist Organizations Act of 2003, or VICTORY Act, which could be introduced to Congress this fall, and which appears to have been prepared by the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The measure would give law enforcement increased subpoena powers and more leeway over wire-tap evidence and on classifying some drug offenses as terrorism.
The draft is a complex 89-page document that, like the Patriot Act, the massive anti-terror law that passed overwhelmingly six weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, would amend various existing statutes, ostensibly to allow law enforcement to work more efficiently.
Provisions in the draft would:
Raise the threshold for rejecting illegal wiretaps. The draft reads: "A court may not grant a motion to suppress the contents of a wire or oral communication, or evidence derived therefrom, unless the court finds that the violation of this chapter involved bad faith by law enforcement."
Extend subpoena powers by giving giving law enforcement the authority to issue non-judicial subpoenas which require a person suspected of involvement in money laundering to turn over financial records and appear in a prosecutor's office to answer questions.
Extend the power of the attorney general to issue so-called administrative "sneak-and-peek" subpoenas to drug cases. These subpoenas allow law enforcement to gather evidence from wire communication, financial records or other sources before the subject of the search is notified.
Allow law enforcement to seek a court order to require the "provider of an electronic communication service or remote computing service" or a financial institution to delay notifying a customer that their records had been subpoenaed.
Hatch spokeswoman Margarita Tapia declined to comment directly on the draft, which begins "Mr. Hatch … introduced the following bill," and is dated for the first session of the 108th Congress beginning next month. Tapia noted, "We are examining legislative options but we have not submitted anything for consideration."
Other members of the Senate judicial committee also declined to comment on the draft.
And a spokesman for the Justice Department, which came under fire from several members of Congress when drafts of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act — "Patriot II" — appeared earlier this year, said the agency was not involved in the Victory Act.
"It's not ours," a Justice Department official said.
But critics wasted no time taking aim at the measure. A Democratic aide for the House Judiciary Committee said the linking of drug-related crime and terrorism raises questions about the draft.
"This bill would treat drug possession as a 'terrorist offense' and drug dealers as 'narco-terrorist kingpins,' " the aide argued. "To say that terrorist groups use a small percentage of the drug trafficking in the United States to finance terrorism may be a fair point, but this bill would allow the government to prosecute most drug cases as terrorism cases."