The House of Representatives voted to reauthorize the Patriot Act July 28. While debate focused on the larger issues of whether the act is necessary to defend freedom or an erosion of it, the House reauthorization also included a provision approved on a voice vote that would create the new offense of "narco-terrorism."
Offered by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), the successful amendment would make manufacture, sale, possession with the intent to sell Schedule I and II drugs, or conspiracy to do any of the above "narco-terrorism" if it "directly or indirectly, aids, or provides support, resources or anything of value to: (a) a foreign terrorist organization; or (b) any person or group involved in the planning, preparation for, or carrying out of a terrorist offense."
A "narco-terrorism" conviction would draw a mandatory minimum 20-year prison sentence, with the possibility of a life sentence. Under the provision, "the government need not prove that the defendant knew that an organization is a designated foreign terrorist organization,'" according to the House floor summary.
Under this wording, the statute's reach is unclear. Could the urban teenager selling $10 rocks of crack on the street be charged as a "narco-terrorist" if the cocaine he was retailing was proven to come from a shipment ultimately controlled by the Colombian paramiliaries or the FARC, both of which reportedly earn fortunes in the business? Whether the crack seller is transformed into a "narco-terrorist" could depend on nothing more than the ambition and ruthlessness of a young Assistant US Attorney somewhere.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has already passed a version of the Patriot Act reauthorization that does not include "narco-terrorism." The full Senate is scheduled to vote on reauthorization after this month's congressional recess.
The original Patriot Act was passed in great haste after the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. It allowed expanded surveillance of "terrorist suspects" and loosened restrictions on government snooping, much to the concern of civil libertarians. This year's reauthorization would make the act permanent, but some of the most contentious provisions -- including roving wiretaps and spying on library records -- would have to be renewed after ten years.