WASHINGTON – Critics of the Patriot Act (search) say the 2001 law, which was intended to enhance police powers to track terrorists, has recently been misused to investigate a political scandal in Las Vegas.
The same folks who warned that provisions in the Patriot Act are too far-reaching and could infringe on the civil liberties of regular Americans say the Las Vegas case is the first — but certainly not the last — example of federal law enforcement using its broadened surveillance powers to prosecute domestic criminals who do not threaten national security.
"It would seem to me the fact that the FBI is wasting any time at all prosecuting strip club owners is good news for terrorists," said George Getz, national spokesman for the Libertarian Party (search), which is calling for the repeal of the Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who voted for the bill, but has since voiced his concerns of the law, said he wasn't surprised, but disappointed to hear reports earlier this month that FBI agents investigating two strip club owners in Las Vegas on bribery charges bypassed a grand jury and instead used the Patriot Act to subpoena the financial records of the bar owners as well as several prominent city and county officials.
"The administration presented the Patriot Act to the Congress two years ago as a carefully tailored and limited piece of legislation specific to targeting terrorism. And now they're using it for purposes that are obviously and completely unrelated to terrorism," Barr told Foxnews.com.
According to an FBI official in Las Vegas, investigators used a provision in the Patriot Act that allows investigators easy access to the financial records of persons suspected of terrorism or money laundering.
Some experts say that technically speaking, the FBI had the authority to use the Patriot Act to expedite their case against the club owners. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't immediately raise red flags about the design of the Patriot Act, which Attorney General John Ashcroft has firmly insisted is for the sake of national security only.
"We should be cautious," said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation (search). Rosenzweig added this was neither the "sky falling down" nor something easily ignored.
"We have said many times we should be guarding against mission creep," he said. "If this is to become a more commonplace or routine thing, we will need to adjust."
Officials in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nevada said they could not comment on a pending investigation, while the Department of Justice did not return calls for comment.
Some lawmakers have begun to speak out about the Las Vegas incident, complaining that they were assured that the powers they granted to the administration under the Patriot Act were to fight terrorists, not "garden variety criminals."
"It seems to me that the Patriot Act was used to circumvent existing laws in a case that had nothing to do with terrorism," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said he supported the passage of the act in 2001, but now has growing concerns that the FBI is overreaching.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., wrote a letter to Ashcroft, demanding answers to why agents used the anti-terror laws in Las Vegas.
Calling the case "outrageous," Berkley said in a letter dated Nov. 7 that "it diminishes the legislation I voted for and it further erodes the legitimacy of the Patriot Act in the eyes of an increasingly skeptical public."
Civil liberties activists say a number of measures contained in the act encroach upon individual rights. Specifically, they point to powers by the FBI to monitor e-mail and Internet chat rooms, political and religious gatherings, library records, financial transactions and consumer buying habits.
Moreover, concerns are growing about the authority of the FBI to obtain secret search and seizure warrants against U.S. citizens suspected of having terrorist ties.
More than 200 cities and towns, as well as Hawaii and Vermont, have passed anti-Patriot Act bills, mostly telling their local and state police, prosecutors and librarians to ignore provisions in the act that require them to release book-borrowing records or engage in any profiling of their citizens.
Janine Hansen, president of the Nevada Eagle Forum (search) and a self-identified staunch defender of the Constitution, has led a number of demonstrations at the state capitol and is now fighting to get Nevada to sign its own anti-Patriot Act legislation. She fears that the Patriot Act could be used to intimidate activists.
"I'm very concerned about law-abiding citizens being identified as terrorists and spied on by the government," she said, noting that the Las Vegas case was indeed the first step in the wrong direction. "The process has begun. So the question is, who's next?"
For the last few months, Ashcroft's office has attempted to bolster public confidence in the Patriot Act, which has been battered by what he says are misconceptions about the intent of its provisions.
In an appearance Nov. 15 before the Federalist Society (search), an organization of conservative lawyers, Ashcroft said the Patriot Act gives courts oversight to ensure that its powers are not abused and that the administration welcomes a "bright light of inquiry" on the issues.
Phil Kent, executive director of the American Immigration Control Foundation (search), said that much of the anti-terror legislation is necessary to help prevent another attack as devastating as Sept. 11. He said that since some of the measures are set to expire in 2005, he is hopeful Congress will give them a careful review at that time.
"If there are abuses, we can change that when the oversight committees kick in," he said. "I always felt that the government needed more tools to go after terrorists as long as you have the proper oversight."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.