Senate easily approves bill to bolster security

Measure, which Bush plans to sign today, eases wiretaps, data exchange

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 26, 2001|By Karen Hosler and Gail Gibson | Karen Hosler and Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With an overwhelming vote of support from the Senate, Congress gave final approval yesterday to legislation that would give federal investigators broad new powers to try to track down terrorists and thwart future attacks.

At a ceremony today, President Bush is scheduled to sign the bill into law, making it much easier for authorities to secretly search homes, wiretap phone conversations, trace financial records, track Internet use, detain foreign suspects, and exchange information among law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

In a bow to concerns about civil liberties, most of the surveillance powers would expire in four years unless Congress extended them.

"I am extremely pleased," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said after the Senate voted 98 to 1 in favor of the bill, which the House approved Wednesday. "It addresses all of the needs that have been brought to our attention by the attorney general and this administration."

The lone Senate vote against the measure was cast by Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, who said he feared that the bill would allow law enforcement agencies to encroach on the privacy of innocent Americans.

In particular, Feingold objected to authority that investigators would have to seize the personal records of anyone even loosely associated with the target of a terrorism investigation.

"Congress fulfills its duty only when it protects both the American people and the freedoms at the foundation of American society," Feingold said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft made clear yesterday that he intends to waste no time in taking advantage of the sweeping new authority the bill would grant. The new powers, Ashcroft said, will be put to use immediately to fight terrorism, which he said is now the "first and overriding" priority of the Justice Department.

Defending the department's aggressive stance and its use of relatively minor offenses to detain hundreds of people in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ashcroft likened the anti-terrorism fight to Robert F. Kennedy's crusade against organized crime in the early 1960s.

"Let the terrorists among us be warned," he said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors shortly before the Senate vote. "We will use every available statute. We will seek every prosecutorial advantage. We will use all our weapons within the law and under the Constitution to protect life and enhance security for America."

Authorities have arrested 952 people in their six-week-old investigation of the terrorist attacks, the broadest criminal inquiry in U.S. history. None of those people has been charged with having direct involvement in the attacks. But Ashcroft declared:

"Taking suspected terrorists in violation of the law off the streets and keeping them locked up is our clear strategy to prevent terrorism within our borders."

Ashcroft had sought even greater power than the new measure would allow to detain foreigners in the United States who are suspected of terrorism.

Noncitizens can be held for only two days without being charged with a crime. Ashcroft wanted to extend that period indefinitely. Under the new legislation, noncitizens could be held for seven days before being charged with a crime, released or transferred to immigration officials for deportation proceedings.

"We worked very hard to get a balanced bill that literally does protect civil liberties, works within the framework of the Constitution and yet gives law enforcement the tools that they have not had for years," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.

"I don't know anybody in this country who's afraid of their law enforcement people at this time. They're afraid of terrorism. This bill will go a long way to giving the tools to our law enforcement community to give us the maximum protection we can get in this society."

Ashcroft's eagerness to apply the new powers is a source of concern to civil rights and civil liberties groups who opposed the bill.

"At every step of the way, he's tried to short-circuit the democratic process," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group.

"We're going to set up a Civil Liberties Watch to monitor how the law is carried out," Neas added. "If we find abuses, we're not going to wait four years to complain."

The legislation, though prompted by the terrorist acts, could exert a much broader reach.

"This bill can be an effective tool against terrorism and against drug trafficking and against organized crime, and it should have been done a long time ago," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

By normal congressional standards, the counterterrorism legislation passed with stunning speed.

Sarbanes observed that many provisions on money-laundering had been languishing for years until the Sept. 11 attacks raised alarms about the need to update banking laws.

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