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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Paul McNulty
United States Attorney, Eastern District of Virginia
July 20, 2005

Paul McNulty
I'm pleased to have this opportunity to answer questions about the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act. It has been nearly four years since my office, located in Eastern Virginia, was thrust into the war against terrorism after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Since then we have successfully prosecuted 9-11 conspirator Zaccarias Moussaoui, John Walker Lindh, Iyman Farris, Ali al-Timimi, and many others connected to terrorist activities. Our ability to protect the public is dependent on having laws on the books that give us the tools we need to do our job. That's why the USA PATRIOT Act is so valuable for our mission. It equips us with the essential authorities to combat terrorism while respecting the Constitution and our treasured civil liberties. I hope you will take a moment to consider my perspectives from the "front lines" in the legal battle against terrorism.

Lenny, from Pennsylvania writes:
Groups such as the ACLU claim on their website that under the Patriot Act, homes can be searched without consent, personal information may be collected without consent, financial assets may be seized, and webemail activity may be monitored. The vast majority should be able to recognize that these laws are in place to deter terrorism, however can you clairfy this position in terms of what it means to most Americans and why we should urge the renewal of the Patriot Act?

Paul McNulty
The framers of the Constitution established the ground rules for law enforcement more than 200 years ago and the USA PATRIOT Act must and does abide by those rules. For example, the actions you mention can only happen if a federal judge is satisfied that the government has met the appropriate standard. For searches and seizures, the standard is probable cause to believe that the place to be searched has evidence of, for example, a terrorist plot. The lesson from the horrors of 9-11 should be clear. We must do all we can within the Constitution to prevent the death of Americans at the hands of terrorists.

Indrani, from New York writes:
Has the Patriot Act helped the US govt. prosecute terrorists, and if so can you provide any quantifiable data?

Paul McNulty
Yes, absolutely. In summer of 2001, the United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, Mike Battle began investigating what turned out to be an active terrorist cell within the United States. This terrorists cell came to be known as “The Lackawanna Six”. Prior to the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act, the investigation was hamstrung by an artificial and bureaucratic “wall” that prevented the law enforcement and intelligence communities from sharing information regarding national security investigations. Because of this wall, we had to set up two separate investigations—a criminal investigation for drug crimes and an intelligence investigation for terrorist activities. Agents from these two separate investigations were prohibited from sharing information with one another.

But in October of 2001, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act with overwhelming support. Among the many necessary tools that this important Act provided law enforcement, the USA PATRIOT Act broke down this “wall.” Suddenly, these two separate investigative teams were allowed to share information with one another. As a result, our agents discovered that the suspects had attended an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. As a result, the federal prosecutor overseeing the case was able to use the information gathered from both investigations to build a convincing case. Today, all six terrorists known as the “Lackawanna Six” are behind bars.

“Lackawanna Six” is just one of many examples of how the USA PATRIOT Act has enhanced the law enforcement community’s ability to track down and bring to justice those who would use the freedoms that make our Nation so great, to plot attacks against our Nation.

Take a look at the Justice Department fact sheets, which are available on its website at It contains numerous examples of how the USA PATRIOT Act has helped the United States prosecute terrorists and other criminals.

pauline, from harrow uk writes:
With what happened here in London recently and with everyonehaving civil liberties and human rights how does the Act cover all eventualities? I have a feeling that something like this will be coming our way.

Paul McNulty
Unfortunately, Pauline, we can never “cover all eventualities.” But the USA PATRIOT Act does give law enforcement authorities common-sense tools to investigate and, hopefully, prevent future terrorist attacks. I share your concerns, and that is why I hope Congress will re-authorize those parts of the Act that are about to expire.

Deborah, from Cincinnati, Ohio writes:
I've been told that if you check a book out of the library about Saddam Huessin or Osama Bin Laden, you automatically get put onto the terrorist watch list, because of the Patriot Act. Is this true?

Paul McNulty
No, that is not true. This proves the adage that you can’t always believe everything you hear. First, there is no “terrorist watch list” associated with the USA PATRIOT Act. Second, no one is required to automatically provide business records (such as library records) under any provision of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Section 215 gives the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court –- which is made up of independent federal judges – the authority to order the production of records or tangible items in foreign intelligence investigations (such as those involving international terrorism). This is the same authority that grand juries have had for over 200 years in criminal investigations. Grand jury subpoenas, however, do not need the approval of a court; Section 215 orders do.

Deborah, the only way the government would be able to use Section 215 to find out that you had checked out a book at your local library, or made a particular financial transaction at a bank, or rented a particular movie at Blockbuster, is if you were the subject of an international terrorism or espionage investigation and a federal judge concluded that the library, bank or video store probably had information relevant to that investigation.

You might also be interested to know that “libraries” are not singled out or even mentioned anywhere in the USA PATRIOT Act.

Ryan, from Bristol Ct writes:
I love the Patriot Act, I did a report for school, pro-Patriot Act, why to liberals, and the ACLU hate it so much? Here is the government trying to protect them from more terrorist attacts, and so they can be free, and share their belives with people in this beautiful Country I don't understand why people hate it so much.

Paul McNulty
Neither do I, Ryan. The tools in the Act are critical for our efforts to protect Americans from terrorism and are entirely consistent with the Constitution. There has been a great deal of misinformation out there regarding the USA PATRIOT Act. But the facts are clear.

The PATRIOT Act is a necessary tool for law enforcement to adequately address the 21st Century threat of terrorism here in the United States.

Since its enactment in 2001, there have been zero verified civil liberties violations regarding the use of the PATRIOT Act.

The PATRIOT Act was crafted with built-in civil liberties safeguards, such as judicial review and Congressional oversight, to preserve Americans’ civil liberties while giving law enforcement the much-needed tools to address the terrorist threat

In addition, the PATRIOT Act updates the law to account for 21st Century technology. Terrorists are smart enough to use the most advanced technological devices. By maintaining judicial checks and balances, the PATRIOT Act enables investigators to keep up with the way terrorists communicate in the 21st Century.

On of the most important provisions in the PATRIOT Act broke down "the wall" that separated the intelligence community from the law enforcement community. Prior to the PATRIOT Act, the intelligence and law enforcement communities were limited in their ability to communicate and share information regarding terror investigations. The PATRIOT Act broke down that wall, allowing law enforcement and intelligence agents to share information with each other about related investigations.

The PATRIOT Act is a vital tool in the war on terror, giving intelligence officials and law enforcement officers the ability to hunt down, apprehend, and successfully prosecute terrorists within our borders before they strike.

Ben, from Seattle writes:
When will national intelligence begin tracking all US citizens purchases, travels, interests , and behaviors through linking rf technology integrated with the national id card or passport and visamc cards?

Paul McNulty
There is no such plan, and the USA PATRIOT Act certainly does not authorize that.

Shan, from Tucson, Arizona writes:
Looks like Pariot Act allows FBI to track the communication of any person whom they think necessary. Although it makes a person feel uncomfortable, it really works.

Paul McNulty
The USA PATRIOT Act authorizes the monitoring of communications only with the approval of a federal judge. The approval is periodically reviewed by the judge, and a report of all approvals is made to Congress. FBI agents can’t just monitor your phone calls and e-mail messages because they think it might be interesting. I agree with you that the tools provided by the USA Act do work and are critical to our efforts to identify terrorists and prevent terrorism in this country.

Ann, from St. Louis, MO writes:
I recently moved back to Missoui and when I went to open a new account at a local bank I was asked for 3 pieces of identification to open an ordinary checking account which included proof of ownership of my home. I was told to bring in a copy of the deed or loan papers for their files or they couldn't open the account. I had never been asked for such detailed informationproof before when opening a checking account, asked why I had to give such information, and why they had to have a copy of it. I was told by the account officer that it was necessary because of regulations in the Patriot Act. I had an open checking account with the same bank in the neighboring state at the time, as well as having an account with this particular branch within the last five years. This felt very intrusive and insulting I feel as if this Act will make the ordinary citizen feel like a criminal. I would appreciate any comments on this and any other encounters like this I might expect in the future. Thank you.

Paul McNulty
While I cannot speak to your bank’s policies in particular, I do know that Section 326 of the USA PATRIOT Act directed the Secretary of the Treasury to issue new regulations that require financial institutions to implement procedures to verify the identity of people seeking to open new accounts and to maintain records of “the information used to verify a person’s identity, including name, address and other identifying information.”

Why should banks have “know your customer” policies? Money is the life-blood of terrorism. Terrorists must have access to large financial resources in order to plan their attacks. These regulations are important in a free and open society to protect us from people who would take advantage of our freedoms and turn them against us. By requiring banks to really know their customers, we make it harder for terrorists to use our banking system to support them while they live here and wait to carry out terrorist attacks.

Whit, from Greenville, SC writes:
Why does the DOJ not have to report to ANY government agency, with ANY level of security clearance, about what they do with their sneak-and-peak powers? Isn't that unconstitutional?

Paul McNulty
Your question stems from a common misunderstanding regarding delayed notice search warrants (which may have been dubbed as “sneak-and-peak” warrants). First, these warrants are not new. Long before the USA PATRIOT Act, law enforcement officers could obtain a search warrant in drug trafficking cases that allowed the officers to delay notice that the search had occurred. Section 213 of the USA PATRIOT Act made it clear that suspected terrorists do not have more rights than suspected drug traffickers.

Second, it is incorrect to suggest that delayed-notice search warrants are not reported to other branches of the government. Every warrant must be signed by a federal judge, hence the judicial branch. Review by an independent federal judge ensures that no warrant issues unless the government has established probable cause to believe that evidence of a crime will be found at the location to be searched. Also, the Department of Justice regularly reports to the oversight committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives regarding the use of its authority under Section 213. For example, the Department has reported that as of January 31, 2005, the Department has requested delayed notice of search warrants 155 times, which is less that 1 out of every 500 search warrants obtained since President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law. The Department has also disclosed specific examples of the use of delayed-notice search warrants. Such disclosure cannot be made when the investigation is ongoing, of course.

Finally, Section 213 is clearly constitutional. The Supreme Court has held that the Fourth Amendment does not require law enforcement officers to give immediate notice of the execution of a search warrant, and three federal courts of appeals have upheld the constitutionality of delayed-notice search warrants. No court of appeals has held that such warrants are unconstitutional.

Paul, from Fergus Falls, Minnesota writes:
Counselor: The fact that "the People" have neither pursued, questioned or papered a single case against a librarian for failing to comply with the government's request to hand over a person's check-out history, is it not reasonable to question why it's there in the first place? Why can't this part of the statute be reviewed as Judge Gonzalez has suggested?

Paul McNulty
Paul, the provision to which you refer is Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Section 215 extends authority that grand juries already have in ordinary criminal investigations to international terrorism and espionage investigations. Unlike grand jury subpoenas, however, these orders must be approved by a judge. This just makes sense. When investigating terrorist, we should have at least the same tools that we have when investigating ordinary criminals. It is also important for you to know that Section 215 applies to anyone who may have records relevant to an international terrorism investigation - not just libraries. So, the real question is “Why should libraries be exempt from a law that applies to everyone else?” The answer is that they should not be. Libraries are wonderful places, but they should not be havens for terrorist or spies. While few if any Section 215 orders may have been issued to libraries yet, the fact that other criminals have used libraries to plan and carry out criminal activities in the past suggest to me that it may some day become necessary in a terrorism or espionage investigations.

Patrick, from Cincinnati writes:
Thanks for taking my question. I've heard before that many of the provisions in the PATRIOT Act are not new. Is it true that almost all of these provisions were on th books before 911, but were used to go after drug dealers and mobsters? Isn't the PATRIOT Act just extending these pre-existing provisions to go after terrorists?

Paul McNulty
You are absolutely right. Most of the tools in the USA PATRIOT Act have long been available to law enforcement investigating ordinary crimes. It just makes sense to make those same tools available to investigators working on international terrorism or espionage cases. For example, before the USA PATRIOT Act, FBI agents investigating drug traffickers or racketeers could obtain from a judge a “roving wiretap” order that would allow them to tap any phone the target of the investigation was using. But FBI agents investigating terrorism could not. So terrorists could keep changing phones to avoid wiretaps. As wireless phones become ubiquitous, this problem becomes much more serious. Thanks to Section 206 of the USA PATRIOT Act, FBI agents can now obtain “roving wiretap” orders in international terrorism investigations.

Paul McNulty
I hope these responses have helped to clarify some issues concerning the PATRIOT Act. Obviously, there is much more that could be said on the topics raised by these fine questions. This law is too important at such a critical moment in our nation's history for opinions on it to be based on rumors and soundbites. The Justice Department's website for the USA PATRIOT Act is an excellent resource for additional information regarding this important law. Thank you for your questions and interest.

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