Why the Jihad Jane Case Is a Win for the Patriot Act

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Tom Green County Jail / AP

A mug shot of Colleen LaRose, a.k.a. "Jihad Jane," taken June 26, 1997, at Tom Green County Jail in San Angelo, Texas

The Justice Department won't say whether provisions of the Patriot Act were used to investigate and charge Colleen LaRose. But the FBI and U.S. prosecutors who charged the 46-year-old woman from Pennsburg, Pa., on Tuesday with conspiring with terrorists and pledging to commit murder in the name of jihad could well have used the Patriot Act's fast access to her cell-phone records, hotel bills and rental-car contracts as they tracked her movements and contacts last year. But even if the law's provisions weren't directly used against her, the arrest of the woman who allegedly used the moniker "Jihad Jane" is a boost for the Patriot Act, Administration officials and Capitol Hill Democrats say. That's because revelations of her alleged plot may give credibility to calls for even greater investigative powers for the FBI and law enforcement, including Republican proposals to expand certain surveillance techniques that are currently limited to targeting foreigners.

Despite having repeatedly called for greater restrictions on the Patriot Act since its inception, Democrats punted late last month when presented with their best opportunity to roll back the law. After spending months working up a revised bill that would have moderately limited the broad powers created by the existing one, Democrats opted instead to extend the act as is for one year. President Obama signed the extension days before the expiration of the law's most controversial provisions.

Not that the President had much choice. As the deadline to move the bill approached, Republicans were scoring political points by attacking the Administration on national-security issues, targeting its plans for closing Guantánamo Bay and criticizing its handling of the Christmas Day airline-bombing attempt. In that political climate, Democrats feared that they might lack the votes to pass the new restrictions on surveillance that were proposed by the party's left wing, and worried that Republicans might even succeed in expanding the bill's provisions, Hill Democrats tell TIME.

LaRose, if guilty, fits the profile of what terrorism experts have come to call the "lone wolf" — an individual acting largely out of his or her own motivation without long-standing or direct connections to terrorist organizations or networks. LaRose allegedly tried to recruit militants online, plotted an attack and was in contact with suspects who were plotting to kill a Swedish cartoonist who had portrayed the Prophet Mohammad as a dog. The Justice Department says she thought her blond hair and blue eyes would allow her to operate undetected in Europe, where she traveled in August, allegedly to carry out the attack.

Under the current legal framework, law enforcement can spy on a foreign suspect in the U.S. by going to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has less stringent rules than traditional courts do for granting a warrant. But the police and FBI cannot use the same route to spy on an American citizen who is a lone-wolf terrorism suspect.

In fact, Justice Department terrorism experts are privately unimpressed by LaRose. Hers was not a particularly threatening plot, they say, and she was not using any of the more challenging counter-surveillance measures that more experienced jihadis, let alone foreign intelligence agents, use.

But there is a mounting concern that homegrown extremists, even amateurs, are increasing in number. Over the past seven to eight months there have been multiple arrests: Michael Finton was arrested in September and charged with trying to blow up a federal building in Springfield, Ill.; Najibullah Zazi was also arrested in September and pled guilty to plotting to bomb the New York City subway system; and the Justice Department in December arrested David Headley for allegedly helping plot the 2008 killing spree by Pakistan-based militants in Mumbai.

Democrats on Capitol Hill, already in retreat on national-security issues, say they fear opponents will use the mounting incidence of domestic terrorism to expand investigative powers, including the lone-wolf provisions, against U.S. citizens. Announcing LaRose's indictment, Janice K. Fedarcyk, special agent in charge of the Philadelphia division of the FBI, said, "We must use all available technologies and techniques to root out potential threats and stop those who intend to harm us." Unfortunately for critics of the Patriot Act, that cadre of extremists looking to harm Americans may include a growing number of U.S. citizens.