Privacy Notice

Senator Feinstein Urges Department of Justice to
Aggressively Enforce Bombmaking Statute

- First person prosecuted under law is scheduled
to be taken into custody tomorrow
September 3, 2003

Washington, DC - U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has called upon the Department of Justice to aggressively enforce a law that makes it illegal to distribute bombmaking information with the knowledge or intent that the information will be used to commit a violent federal crime.

This statute, which was established through legislation sponsored by Senator Feinstein in 1997, was recently applied for the first time in a case against Sherman Austin, an anarchist who put links to bombmaking information on his website. Austin, who is scheduled to surrender to U.S. Marshals tomorrow, was sentenced to 12 months in prison, a $2000 fine, three years of probation, as well as other restrictions.

In this case, according to press reports, the federal prosecutor reached two separate plea agreements with Austin, but the presiding judge threw out the initial pleas, saying that they were insufficient and that the government was not taking the crime "seriously" enough.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Senator Feinstein wrote: "I was pleased to learn recently that Sherman Austin was sentenced earlier this month in federal court in Los Angeles for violating 18 U.S.C. 842(p), a law I authored mandating up to 20 years in prison for anyone who distributes bombmaking information knowing or intending that the information will be used for a violent federal crime. However, I remain concerned by reports that federal prosecutors may not be taking this important anti-terrorism tool seriously. Thus, I write to request your assistance in ensuring that DOJ personnel know about section 842(p) and are aggressively enforcing it.

A few weeks ago, because of Mr. Austin's admitted violation of section 842(p), U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson sentenced him to 12 months of custody, a $2000 fine, three years probation, and as well as other restrictions. However, I was dismayed to learn that Judge Wilson imposed this sentence only after throwing out two previous plea agreements reached with Mr. Austin as too lenient. The first plea agreement gave Mr. Austin one month in prison followed by five months in a halfway house and the second agreement gave him four months custody and four months in a halfway house.

According to press reports, Judge Wilson stated at a hearing on the second plea agreement that, while the Austin case had 'national and international implications,' the government was not taking it 'seriously' and that in fact the plea agreement was 'shocking.' Subsequently, upon learning that the plea agreement had not been cleared by top DOJ officials, the judge asked the prosecutor to contact Main Justice as well as FBI Director Robert Mueller and solicit their views on the matter.

In my view-and apparently the view of at least one federal judge-the Department of Justice needs to do a better job making prosecutors aware of section 842(p) and ensuring that they take the law seriously. It is dismaying that there has only been one conviction under section 842(p) in the four years that the law has been on the books and that, once that conviction was obtained, a federal judge described the final recommended plea bargain for the convicted individual as 'shocking' in its leniency. Moreover, I was also disturbed to read that Mr. Austin, in an interview after his sentencing, stated that 'The fact that bomb-making information is readily available on the Internet doesn't concern the feds. If someone were to use a bomb to do something illegal, there's plenty of information out there….'

Last May, I met with then Deputy Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher and FBI Director Robert Mueller. Both Ms. Fisher and Director Mueller assured me that they would arrange for widespread distribution of information about section 842(p) within their respective agencies. A month later, Director Mueller informed me that the FBI had sent an electronic communication to all field offices encouraging awareness and enforcement of section 842(p). However, I never received word that the DOJ Criminal Division had issued any similar communication.

Section 842(p) should be an important tool in fighting terrorism but, unfortunately, it has been little used. I would greatly appreciate your assistance in getting the word out to all to all appropriate components of the Department of Justice about this statute."