WASHINGTON - In our latest episode of continuing adventures with the USA Patriot Act, FBI agents say they've used the new anti-terrorism law to prosecute a political bribery case centered on the owner of some Las Vegas strip clubs.
What do topless dancers in Vegas have to do with terrorism, you may ask? Nothing, everyone agrees, unless perhaps you count the violence that some of the ladies inflict on the wallets of their clientele.
Nevertheless, the FBI now confirms local Las Vegas newspaper reports that the agency used the Patriot Act's provisions to subpoena financial information about four local politicians and one local businessman, Michael D. Galardi, the owner of the Jaguars strip club in Las Vegas and Cheetahs clubs in Las Vegas and San Diego.
The Patriot Act, passed in the panicky weeks after 9/11, allows the government to peek into the personal affairs of many people, not just suspected terrorists. The law's powers only begin with suspected terrorists. We have yet to learn how far it extends.
That's the part that Attorney General John Ashcroft does not talk about much as he tours the country touting the powers the Patriot Act has given the federal government to fight terrorism.
"We have used these tools to save innocent American lives," Mr. Ashcroft told a convention of law officers at the federal courthouse in Las Vegas in August. "We have used these tools to provide the security that ensures liberty."
He neglected to mention how, even as he spoke, Las Vegas FBI agents were using those "tools" to go after a strip club owner and the politicians he allegedly paid off.
It turns out that Section 314 of the Patriot Act allows federal investigators wider leeway in obtaining financial information from stockbrokers, banks and other financial institutions on people "suspected, based on credible evidence, of engaging in terrorist acts or money laundering." Pay close attention to that last phrase: "or money laundering." Ah, what legal power that little word "or" contains. Thanks to that teeny but mighty conjunction, the Patriot Act is not limited to money laundering that is linked to suspected terrorist acts but to any suspected money laundering.
"The Patriot Act was not meant to be just for terrorism," Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo told a reporter.
Now they tell us.
Before the Patriot Act became law, FBI agents needed a subpoena from a grand jury to demand financial records. Under Section 314, agents no longer need trouble themselves with facing a grand jury, which is, after all, made up of only ordinary citizens. Instead, agents need only certify in a secret documentation a reasonable suspicion that money laundering is taking place.
Only after the case comes to trial can a judge rule on whether the agents' certification was adequate. If not, the judge can throw out all the evidence gathered as a result of the bogus certification, according to the Justice Department spokesmen.
Why, one wonders, is the normal subpoena process such a bother all of a sudden? Since when it is so hard to prosecute public corruption in Las Vegas, a possibility that rivals gambling in Casablanca on most people's shock-o-meters?
The Justice Department spokesman said the American people expect law enforcement officers to use any and all constitutional and legal tools to fight all crime, whether it is terror-related or not.
Maybe that's so. After all, it is just allegedly corrupt politicians and strip club owners we're talking about here and not the sort of people for whom, say, the Moral Majority would go to bat.
Most anti-abortion groups probably felt that way about the federal RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) law until pro-choice groups persuaded the federal government to use it against aggressive protests at abortion clinics. Anti-abortion groups cheered when the Supreme Court overturned that use of anti-crime law last spring in Scheidler vs. NOW. Now we shall wait to see how many of them join hands with civil libertarians as the government overreaches with the Patriot Act.
Some members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are expressing reservations about the potential for wretched governmental excesses under the Patriot Act. Fortunately, the law must be renewed in 2005. That gives Congress time to reconsider its 342 pages in a calmer atmosphere than that which followed the 2001 terrorist attacks.
I hope they debate wisely. Concern for civil liberties should be equally important to both political parties. After all, the privacy you save may be your own.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Thursdays in The Sun.