WASHINGTON – Four months after the USA PATRIOT Act was rushed to the president’s desk, few of those affected by the sweeping anti-terrorism law know how to comply with it.
The government has not provided the guidance that individuals and institutions need to prepare, say private groups, and Congress is still dallying with a companion bill that would spell out many of the details.
“I had to read about this thing in Science magazine,” said Towson University microbiologist Barry Margulies, who worries about the effect the law might have on his work with a human herpes virus. “I didn’t hear anything from the government.”
Signed into law on Oct. 26, after less than six weeks of work, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act runs to 133 pages. But those pages only lay out the goals — details are yet to come.
For scientific research, for example, the act makes it a crime for certain categories of people to possess or handle pathogens on the government’s “select agents” list. People from seven countries suspected of cooperating with terrorists are now banned from handling the agents, along with people who were dishonorably discharged from the military, those with “mental defects” and felons.
But no one has said, for example, how universities are supposed to find out if a worker or applicant had ever been to mental hospital, said George Leventhal, a policy analyst at the Association of American Universities.
For Internet service providers, the act provides new circumstances under which federal law enforcers may intercept the communications of suspected computer hackers and cyber-terrorists, including communications held at universities, without first getting a court order.
But if Internet service providers were asked about the act, most would say they “haven’t a clue as to what it is,” said Donald Withers, Maryland chapter president of an alliance of businesses, academic institutions and law enforcement agencies that collaborate on computer-security issues.
“They think the FBI and the Secret Service, if you tell them anything, are going to knock the door down and take your computer,” said Withers, who noted that membership in his group doubled after its January meeting on the Patriot act.
Andy Johnston, security supervisor for the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Office of Information Technology, said he has had an employee combing the actual language of the act since January.
“I don’t know anyone on campus who understands what it means,” including the campus’s lawyers, Johnston said.
He wondered, for example, whether non-citizens and citizens get the same treatment under the act or if a university should internally police its computer users before law enforcement asks them to focus on a specific case.
And those are the legal details. Johnston said the language of the law is not explicit enough to implement from a technical standpoint.
Even government officials are stumped. The Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, for example, does not yet know if the act even applies to its labs and personnel, said an official there. Institute staff even attended a Feb. 13 meeting with other federal labs that possess select agents to discuss the act.
The official said the Army institute just sent the document out for a legal interpretation last week. “The document itself was very lengthy” and written in “attorney-speak,” she said.
Even after his department met on the act last month, no action was taken, said University of Maryland microbiologist Dan Stein. He said several types of people could handle select agents on campus — faculty research assistants, guest workers and contract workers — but officials are not quite sure what they have.
Stein, a professor of cell biology and molecular genetics who also chairs part of the university’s Bio-Safety Committee, said there are no further meetings planned on the topic.
University of Maryland Bio-Safety Officer Janet Peterson said the university has taken no action on the Act, as they are “just waiting” for the necessary regulations.
She said the university did not know if the burden of worker checking will fall on it or on the Justice Department. Peterson said the university does not currently do background checks on personnel who handle biological agents.
Overall, however, Leventhal and others had no criticism for Congress’ pace and handling of lab and research security legislation.
“I think they want to make sure it’s right,” Leventhal said.