- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Tucked inside a intelligence spending bill awaiting the president’s signature is a provision that allows the FBI to obtain an individual’s financial records from pawn shops, casinos, car dealers and travel agents without a court order.

The measure was included in the intelligence authorization bill and expands on who can be served with “national security letters” that demand financial information on investigations relating to terrorism or counterintelligence. The letters, or subpoenas, do not require judicial review or approval.

Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, Idaho Republican, said the provision is a “thinly veiled expansion of the Patriot Act” that will have “far-reaching consequences for Americans’ civil liberties.”

“With this legislation, we eliminate the judicial oversight that was built into our system for a reason — to make sure that our precious liberties are protected,” Mr. Otter said.

The authorization bill was sent to President Bush’s desk Tuesday for his signature, and he has until Dec. 13 to sign the measure into law, a White House spokeswoman said. It passed Nov. 20 in the House 264-163, and in the Senate Nov. 21 by voice vote.

The measure redefines “financial institutions” that was previously limited to banks, credit unions, and savings and loan organizations.

Now the definition also includes brokers and dealers registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, investment bankers, operators of credit-card systems, insurance companies, dealers in precious metals, stones, or jewels, licensed senders of money, telegraph companies, airplane and boat dealers, Realtors and estate closings, and the U.S. Post Office.

Financial institution also means “any other business designated by the secretary [of the Treasury] whose cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax, or regulatory matters.”

Once a national security letter has been issued to search an individual’s financial records, the company is prevented by law from notifying the person being investigated.

Administration officials support the bill because it allows law enforcement to pursue investigations with greater speed and flexibility.

Senate committee staffers said the investigative tool is not new and was used in the past for money-laundering investigations.

Those same tools should be available to investigate terrorism, they said, and were requested by the administration.

Not only are the national security letters exempt from traditional court reviews, but also from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, said Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We see this as one step closer towards a broad records power, with no judicial review, that was a major part of the proposal to expand the Patriot Act,” Mr. Edgar said. “It’s a very sneaky provision, and not something most people were aware of until right before the bill passed.”

The committee staffers said it would not be accurate to describe the provision as “Patriot II.”

“It’s not Patriot or an expansion of Patriot authorities,” an aide said. “Patriot was one bill and was all on the table at the same time, not piecemeal like other new authorities.”

The aide also said the intelligence provision was “discussed and agreed to in a bipartisan way and reported openly, not hidden.”

Mr. Otter said protecting America is priority one, but “we must never turn our backs on our freedoms.”

“Expanding the use of administrative subpoenas and threatening our system of checks and balances is a step in the wrong direction,” he said.

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