Democratic Senators Issue Strong Warning About Patriot Act

For more than two years, several Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee have warned that the federal government has been secretly overstepping its bounds when interpreting the surveillance power granted to it under the Patriot Act. In fact some have stated that the American public, or even others in Congress, would be alarmed if they knew about it.

On Thursday, two of those senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, took their warnings even further. They said a top-secret intelligence operation, based on that secret legal theory, that executive branch officials have claimed is crucial to national security is not actually all that crucial at all.

The senators, who also said that Americans would be “stunned” to know what the government believes the Patriot Act allows it to do, made their remarks in a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. after a Justice Department official last month told a judge that disclosing anything about the program “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States.”

The Justice Department believes that any disclosure of information regarding its interpretation of the Patriot Act could alert enemies of the state to the methods used by the government to collect certain intelligence.

The Dept. is also seeking to have two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits dismissed. The suits were filed by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union. They are related to how the Patriot Act is being interpreted.

The senators agree that certain operations must be kept secret. However they also said that the government in a democracy must act within publicly understood law so that voters “can ratify or reject decisions made on their behalf” even if that “obligation to be transparent with the public” creates other challenges.

“We would also note that in recent months we have grown increasingly skeptical about the actual value of the ‘intelligence collection operation,’ ” they added. “This has come as a surprise to us, as we were initially inclined to take the executive branch’s assertions about the importance of this ‘operation’ at face value.”

The dispute revolves around Section 215 of the Patriot Act, under which agents may obtain a secret order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allowing them to get access to any “tangible things” such as business records that are deemed “relevant” to a terrorism or espionage investigation.

There appears to be both an ordinary use for Section 215 orders, like using a grand jury subpoena to get specific information in a traditional criminal investigation and a separate classified intelligence collection activity that also relies upon them.

The interpretation of Section 215 that authorizes this secret surveillance operation is not obvious from a plain text reading of the provision, and was developed through a series of classified rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The letter from Mr. Wyden and Mr. Udall also complained that while the Obama administration told Congress in August 2009 that it would establish “a regular process for reviewing, redacting and releasing significant opinions” of the court, since then “not a single redacted opinion has been released.”

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Former Senator Says Classified Documents Contradict FBI on Post-9/11 Probe of Saudis

Former Florida Senator and co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sen. Bob Graham, says he has seen two classified FBI documents that contradict the bureau’s public statement that there was no connection between the hijackers and Saudis living in Sarasota, Fla, at the time. 

“There are significant inconsistencies between the public statements of the FBI in September and what I read in the classified documents,” Graham said.

“One document adds to the evidence that the investigation was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI,” he added. “An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as truth.”

One unanswered question surrounding the 9/11 attacks is whether the hijackers had support within the U.S. The final 28 pages of Congress’s bipartisan inquiry released in July 2003 regarding possible foreign support for the terrorists, were censored in it’s entirety, on President George W. Bush’s instructions.

Graham said the two classified FBI documents that he saw, dated 2002 and 2003, were prepared by an agent who participated in the Sarasota investigation. He said the agent suggested that another federal agency be asked to join the investigation, but that the idea was “rejected.”

Graham attempted in recent weeks to contact the agent, he said, but the agent had been instructed by his superiors not to talk.

The FBI investigated Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud a decade ago. They moved out of their home in the upscale, gated community of Prestancia, near Sarasota, and left the country weeks before 9/11. The couple left numerous personal belongings, such as furnishings, clothes, medicine, food and cars according to law enforcement records. After the 9/11 attacks, a concerned neighbor contacted the FBI. 

Prestancia gatehouse visitor logs and photographs of license tags show that several of the 9/11 hijackers visited the al-Hijji home, according to a counterterrorism officer and former Prestancia administrator Larry Berberich.

Al-Hijji, who now lives in London, recently called 9/11 “a crime against the USA and all humankind” and said he was “saddened and oppressed by these false allegations.” He also said it was “not true” that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers visited him at his Sarasota home.

The FBI, after initially declining to comment, confirmed that it did investigate but found nothing sinister. Agents, however, have refused to answer reporters’ specific questions about its investigation or its findings about the Prestancia gate records.

The FBI reiterated its position in a Feb. 7 letter that denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from its Sarasota probe. The denial said their release “could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

“At no time during the course of its investigation of the attacks, known as the PENTTBOM investigation, did the FBI develop credible evidence that connected the address at 4224 Escondito Circle, Sarasota, Florida, to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” wrote records section chief David M. Hardy.

According to newly released Florida law enforcement documents an informant told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers. The informant, Wissam Hammoud, also said al-Hijji introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah, an ex-Broward County resident and suspected al-Qaida operative.

Last September, FBI spokesmen also disputed Graham’s assertion that Congress was never told about the Sarasota investigation.

Graham asked the FBI for assistance in locating the Sarasota related files in National Archives that were allegedly turned over to Congress. He says there were two months in which the FBI was “either unwilling or unable” to help find the records, than the bureau turned over two documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Graham once headed and where he still has access. It is those documents that Graham has said are inconsistent with the FBI denials.

Graham shared this development with the Obama White House, and a meeting between Graham and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce was arraigned.

In December, Graham said, the scheduled meeting was abruptly canceled and he was told he would be allowed no further access to FBI information about Sarasota.

Graham says the information emerging about Sarasota is ominously similar to discoveries his inquiry made in California. Leads there indicated that the first two hijackers to reach the U.S., Saudis Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, received help first from a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and then from two other Saudis, one of whom helped al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi find a place to live.

Multiple sources told investigators they believed both the latter Saudis had been Saudi government agents.

In late December, the U.S. announced a new $30 billion defense deal with the Saudis.

Graham said he was taken aback by that announcement.

“I think that in the period immediately after 9/11 the FBI was under instructions from the Bush White House not to discuss anything that could be embarrassing to the Saudis,” he said. “It is more inexplicable why the Obama administration has been reticent to pursue the question of Saudi involvement. For both administrations, there was and continues to be an obligation to inform the American people through truthful information.”