New police powers passed by House

Bush urges quick action to reconcile anti-terror bill with Senate version

Broad authority to Ashcroft

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 13, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Under pressure from the White House, Republican leaders quickly pushed a bill through the House yesterday that granted federal authorities sweeping new investigative and surveillance powers - legislation that was nearly identical to a bill passed by the Senate late Thursday.

By a vote of 337-79, the House agreed to give Attorney General John Ashcroft most of the new tools he says law enforcement agencies need to track down the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon and to prevent such attacks in the future.

President Bush reacted favorably to the vote. "I commend the House for passing anti-terrorism legislation just one day after the Senate took action," he said in a written statement.

"I urge the Congress to quickly get the bill to my desk," he added. "We must strengthen the hand of law enforcement to help safeguard America and prevent future attacks - and we must do it now."

Earlier in the day, Ashcroft prodded the House to act and quickly resolve differences with the Senate.

"I can say with enthusiasm that they should not delay," Ashcroft told reporters. "We need these anti-terrorism tools now. Congress needs to send a message to terrorists that they will find no safe haven in America."

Differences remain between the two versions of the bill. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said the Senate would not go along with the bill passed by the House because it does not include a Senate section on money-laundering.

"You can't deal with counterterrorism if you don't deal with money-laundering, and so to divorce the two is preposterous," Daschle said.

In choosing to vote on a revised version of the Senate bill, House GOP leaders discarded a less expansive measure produced by the House Judiciary Committee that Ashcroft considered too weak.

His chief objection was that the House bill would have terminated the new authority to conduct computer and electronic surveillance within two years rather than making the changes permanent.

The bill approved by the House yesterday put the measures into effect for up to five years without further congressional action.

"We were careful to weigh both the need for stronger law enforcement and the importance of protecting civil liberties, and believe we struck a good balance," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

But many House Democrats and a handful of Republicans protested that the legislation was far too broad.

"This is very dangerous ground that we are treading on," said Rep. Bobby L. Rush, an Illinois Democrat. Reminding his colleagues of past FBI abuses, Rush added: "I fear we may be returning to the dark days of McCarthyism and Hooverism."

All eight members of the Maryland delegation voted for the legislation except Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who said he feared virtually every American was at risk of being swept up in the wide net the bill would provide investigators.

He cited the examples of wiretaps that could record the conversations of people unconnected to targets of investigations, and a requirement that DNA samples be taken from anyone convicted of a crime of violence, even a misdemeanor assault.

"I think we need to take steps to prevent terrorism," Cummings said. "But this is major stuff that has the potential to backfire on almost everyone."

GOP leaders said they chose to act on the Senate-passed bill rather than the one produced by the House committee because they were trying to speed up the process. Ashcroft has repeatedly urged Congress to finish work on the bill, but made it clear that he was unhappy with the House measure.

Proponents described the legislation as a long overdue modernization of surveillance laws enacted in the days of rotary telephones and paper mail. It allows investigators to conduct roving wiretaps on multiple cell phones, to seize voice mail and track e-mail, and to gain access to Internet and computer files.

In addition, federal authorities would be permitted to obtain court orders that apply nationwide and to conduct searches of property or records without notice to the subjects of the inquiry.

For the first time, secret grand jury information could be disclosed to investigators in national security and terrorism cases.

"We have to change the way we think about the safety and security of our people," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican. "This is a new approach to give law enforcement officials the weapons they need to fight this war."

The attorney general didn't get everything he asked for even in the broader Senate bill. His request for authority to detain noncitizens indefinitely without filing charges against them was altered to require their release after seven days unless charges are filed or deportation proceedings are begun.

Congress also rejected Ashcroft's proposal to allow wiretap information from foreign sources to be used against American citizens even if it was not gathered in accordance with U.S. laws.

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