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."
Concluded the aide: "It really seems to be more about a political agenda to jail drug users than a serious attempt to stop terrorists."
American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Jameel Jaffer added: "Absolutely nothing would prevent the attorney general from using these subpoenas to obtain the records of people who have no connection to terrorism, drug trafficking or crime of any sort."
Recent indications of growing discomfort around the country with some of the elements of the Patriot Act have come from the Republican side of the aisle as well.
The House last month passed by a vote of 309-118 a bill to eliminate funding for the "sneak-and-peek" powers as authorized in the Patriot Act. The House bill was authored by a Republican, Rep. Butch Otter of Idaho.
Meanwhile, three states and more than 140 cities, counties and towns around the country have passed resolutions critical of the Patriot Act. The language of those resolutions ranges from statements affirming a commitment to the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, to directives to local law enforcement not to cooperate with federal agents involved in investigations deemed to be unconstitutional.
A bill has also been introduced in the House to exclude bookstore and library records from those that could be subpoenaed by law enforcement without prior notification of the person whose records were being seized.
Two lawsuits have also been filed challenging provisions of the Patriot Act.
The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit in Los Angeles arguing the provision that makes it illegal to provide "expert advice and assistance" to groups alleged to have ties to terrorism is unconstitutionally vague.
The ACLU also filed suit in Detroit last month, challenging the provision that allows law enforcement to secretly subpoena people's bookstore and library records.
Within the Constitution
Even before Ashcroft took to the road Tuesday, the Justice Department had begun defending the Patriot Act.
The department recently posted a new Web site (www.lifeandliberty.gov), with questions and answers addressing many of the complaints critics have about the Patriot Act.
Justice has also suggested the 93 U.S. attorneys around the country hold town hall meetings to reach out to people in their jurisdictions, to try to reassure them there is no threat to law abiding people in the Patriot Act.
Ashcroft began his tour in Washington, D.C., to put out the message personally that the Patriot Act has greatly aided the fight against terrorism and has not infringed on constitutional rights or civil liberties.
Speaking at the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute, he lauded the achievements of law enforcement in preventing another terrorist attack in the nearly two years since Sept. 11, 2001, and in tracking down suspected terrorist cells in suburban Buffalo and Portland, Ore.
"We have built a new ethos of justice, one rooted in cooperation, nurtured by coordination and focused on a single overarching goal: the prevention of terrorist attacks," Ashcroft said. "All of this has been done within the safeguards or our Constitution, and the guarantees that our Constitution provides, protecting American freedom."
ABCNEWS' Jason Ryan contributed to this report.