WASHINGTON - Under a little-noticed provision in the USA Patriot Act, the Treasury Department has ordered severe restrictions against foreign banks or countries for reasons beyond the stated purpose of the law and without producing evidence.
Section 311 of the 2001 Patriot Act was drafted to halt terrorist financing and money laundering, but the Bush administration has used it against an alleged source of terrorist financing - a bank in Syria - only once. The Treasury has invoked it more often to punish alleged human-rights abuses or offshore banking havens.
Although Congress has yet to examine the Treasury's use of Section 311, the provision is likely to add to the controversy over other sweeping powers the executive branch of government acquired under the Patriot Act. According to a recent audit, the FBI used the act illegally to obtain personal information about U.S. citizens, and the administration has agreed to abandon a provision that it used to replace eight U.S. attorneys for what Democrats charge were partisan political reasons.