Bills would give Ashcroft many anti-terrorism tools

Attorney general seeks to remove time limits

War On Terrorism

Homeland Security

October 10, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON- In response to last month's terrorist attacks, Congress is nearing a vote granting the government police powers so sweeping that many lawmakers might agree to their enforcement for a limited period of time, perhaps two years.

Separate versions of the counterterrorism legislation have emerged in the House and Senate that would provide Attorney General John Ashcroft with many of the new surveillance tools he has requested.

The new police powers include making it easier for federal investigators to obtain nationwide court orders and allowing them to do "roving" wiretaps on cell phones as callers switch numbers.

They would also be able to seize voice mail, obtain credit card information from Internet service providers, monitor e-mail records, and gain access to wiretap and grand jury information from state criminal proceedings.

But both bills give the attorney general considerably less than he asked for, and the House bill offers the further restriction of a two-year limit, dubbed a "sunset." At the end of that time, the powers would automatically expire unless Congress voted to extend them.

"I think the sunset is a very important matter with a lot of our members," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, who estimated that much of the House support for the measure was based on that principle.

"These tools give the government much increased capability to do surveillance on American citizens," he added. He said his colleagues wanted a chance to "see how well they work, how effective they've been, and how responsibly these tools have been used. Our rights as citizens are a big part of what we're fighting for."

The attorney general, who has been calling for Congress to act quickly on the legislation, was trying to get a compromise between the House and Senate versions before either chamber acts. As of last night, neither chamber had scheduled a vote, though leaders hoped for action by the end of this week.

Ashcroft's hope was to produce a bill with no sunset, or perhaps one with a five-year limit.

"No one can guarantee that terrorism will sunset in two years," Ashcroft said last week. "Our president has wisely counseled us as Americans that this is a long struggle. Our laws need to reflect the new war [and] must provide us with tools on a continuing basis to do so."

Some opponents to the legislation say the sunset provision doesn't go far enough to protect Americans from potential breaches of their privacy.

"My view is that if we say something is so bad we're only going to do it for two years, maybe we shouldn't be doing it at all," said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. He blocked an attempt last night to bring the Senate version of the bill to a vote today, with little debate and no opportunity for amendments.

Feingold raised concerns about provisions that he said would allow police to scan computer activity without a search warrant, to execute a search warrant without informing the subject, and to review private medical records as well as business records.

In Congress, Armey and Feingold are usually on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

But, as currently written, both versions of the bill are considered too sweeping for a broad coalition of civil rights, civil liberties, religious, legal, political and educational organizations that run the political gamut.

"We see this as a power grab by the administration," said Laura Murphy of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They are taking advantage of the fear and anxiety of people to get through changes in the law that couldn't pass otherwise."

She contended, for example, the House definition of a terrorist could be applied to a WTO protester who throws a rock through the window of a federal building, and who would face substantial penalties as a result.

Grover Norquist, head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, joked that he found himself allied with "Bolsheviks" in fighting the bill. He said he found it distasteful that the House measure was dubbed "the Patriot Act."

"Does that mean that people like me who don't support it are not patriots or are unpatriotic?" asked Norquist, who said he was troubled that Ashcroft "was trying to rush through something that nobody had even read."

Both versions of the bill dropped a provision sought by Ashcroft that would have allowed noncitizens to be detained indefinitely while law enforcement officials determine whether to charge them with a crime. They replaced it with language saying noncitizens can be released after seven days unless charges are filed or deportation proceedings are begun.

Both chambers also rejected the attorney general's request to allow evidence gained from foreign wiretaps to be used against U.S. citizens, despite the lack of U.S. civil liberty protections.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, protested last night that he was doing the best he could to protect civil liberties and privacy.

"We are trying to get that balance between liberty and security," he told his colleagues. "Is this a perfect bill? No. But it is far better bill than it was at the beginning of this process."

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