'Victory Act' Designed to
Expand Powers of Patriot Act
Summary of article 21 August 2003
Attorney General John D. Ashcroft began a barnstorming tour of the country to elicit support for existing anti-terrorism laws and Senate Republicans are discussing legislation that would expand the Justice Department's powers to investigate terrorists and drug criminals.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) drafted the Victory Act, which also carries the names of four other Senate Republicans, would provide extra penalties for drug dealers alleged to be connected to terrorist groups and would dramatically expand the government's power to seize records and conduct wiretaps in connection with "narcoterrorism" investigations.
Under the proposal, which totals 56 pages in one July 30 version, also targets alleged "interstate currency couriers" it would be a crime to carry more than $10,000 cash in a vehicle in connection with illegal activity. Prosecutors also would be able to freeze the assets of defendants arrested on money-laundering charges for 30 days, regardless of whether the assets are connected to a crime, according to the draft legislation.
Copies of the bill that have circulated on Capitol Hill over the last two months include many provisions sought by Justice prosecutors in the areas of terrorism and drug crimes. Several of the measures are similar to the USA Patriot Act, the controversial anti-terrorism package approved in October 2001 that Ashcroft is defending during his U.S. tour.
Hatch spokeswoman Margarita Tapia said the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman "is continuing to look at all legislative options for combating the nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism," but declined to comment on the Victory Act. Other staffers on the Republican side of the Judiciary Committee said they expect Hatch to formally introduce the bill during the fall 2003 session.
The proposals have prompted an outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union, the criminal defense bar, and some Democrats, who say the Bush administration and Senate Republicans are trying to use the terrorist threat to mask broad changes in drug trafficking laws.
"The Victory Act represents a major expansion of federal surveillance, asset forfeiture, and other powers under the guise of linking the war on drugs to the war on terrorism," said Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the ACLU. "It does not address the intelligence problems that led to the September 11th attacks, continuing a failed policy of simply granting more power to the government instead of ensuring the government uses its existing powers effectively."
Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor who has sharply criticized the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies, said in a news release this week that the Victory Act is "a dangerous piece of legislation."
Ashcroft and Hatch have said that terrorist groups and drug cartels are increasingly interrelated, particularly in South America and the Middle East, and both have advocated tougher laws to combat the problem. "Terrorists around the world, and in every region, appear to be increasing their involvement in the trafficking of illegal drugs, primarily as a source of financing for their terrorist operations," Hatch said during a hearing on "narcoterrorism" in May.
The Victory Act proposal includes expansions of prosecutorial power in traditional drug cases and in those deemed related to terrorism, say experts who have studied the bill. It would give the government more latitude to freeze assets of alleged drug traffickers or terrorists; make it easier to charge drug defendants with aiding terrorists; and loosen the standards used to convict defendants of laundering money through informal money exchange networks known as hawalas and other money-transmitting businesses.
During an appearance earlier this month on "Fox News Sunday," Ashcroft argued in favor of one of the Victory Act's key provisions, which would allow prosecutors to seize records in terrorism cases through the use of administrative subpoenas. Such subpoenas, commonly used in fraud investigations, do not require a judge's approval. He said the idea was among a wide variety of changes the Bush administration is considering for terrorism investigations.
"We'll probably need to add some more tools in our tool kit against terror," Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft kicked off a publicity campaign this week focused on generating support for the Patriot Act, which has come under increasing criticism from civil liberties groups and some lawmakers. About 150 communities, as well as the legislatures of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont, have passed resolutions condemning the statute as an infringement of civil liberties, and the House recently voted to cut off funding for a type of "sneak-and-peak" search warrant authorized by the law.
Justice officials said that Ashcroft, who appeared in Philadelphia and Cleveland yesterday and plans to speak in more than a dozen cities over the next few weeks, will focus his comments on the Patriot Act and will not talk about the Victory Act or any other proposals for expanded anti-terrorism powers. Congressional aides from both political parties said they see little chance currently for passage of the Victory Act or similar legislation because of the political tumult over the Patriot Act.
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