In the debate over the PATRIOT Act, the Bush White House insisted it needed the authority to search people's homes without their permission or knowledge so that terrorists wouldn't be tipped off that they're under investigation.
Now that the authority is law, how has the Department of Justice used the new power? To go after drug dealers.
Only three of the 763 "sneak-and-peek" requests in fiscal year 2008 involved terrorism cases, according to a July 2009 report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Sixty-five percent were drug cases.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) quizzed Assistant Attorney General David Kris about the discrepancy at a hearing on the PATRIOT Act Wednesday. One might expect Kris to argue that there is a connection between drug trafficking and terrorism or that the administration is otherwise justified to use the authority by virtue of some other connection to terrorism.
He didn't even try. "This authority here on the sneak-and-peek side, on the criminal side, is not meant for intelligence. It's for criminal cases. So I guess it's not surprising to me that it applies in drug cases," Kris said.
"As I recall it was in something called the USA PATRIOT Act," Feingold quipped, "which was passed in a rush after an attack on 9/11 that had to do with terrorism it didn't have to do with regular, run-of-the-mill criminal cases. Let me tell you why I'm concerned about these numbers: That's not how this was sold to the American people. It was sold as stated on DoJ's website in 2005 as being necessary - quote - to conduct investigations without tipping off terrorists."
Kris responded by saying that some courts had already granted the Justice Department authority to conduct sneak-and-peeks. But Feingold countered that the PATRIOT Act codified and expanded that authority -- all under the guise of the war on terror.
Feingold, the lone vote against the PATRIOT Act when it was first passed, is introducing an amendment to curb its reach. "I'm going to say it's quite extraordinary to grant government agents the statutory authority to secretly break into Americans homes," he said.
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America