Bush signs anti-terror bill giving broad new powers

Civil libertarians fear erosion of rights

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 27, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush signed into law yesterday a sweeping anti-terrorism measure that will give law enforcement and intelligence agencies broad new powers to detain suspects, secretly search their homes and eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail conversations.

Supporters said that federal authorities will now have the investigative tools they need to hunt down terrorists and protect Americans from new attacks.

Civil libertarians warn, though, that the new law will likely imperil the rights of innocent people.

Mindful of such concerns, Bush called the landmark measure "an essential step in defeating terrorism, while protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans."

"The changes, effective today, will help counter a threat like no other our nation has ever faced," the president said at a signing ceremony in the East Room.

"We've seen the enemy and the murder of thousands of innocent, unsuspecting people.

"These terrorists must be pursued, they must be defeated and they must be brought to justice," he said.

Underscoring how the fight against terrorism has shifted the focus of federal authorities, Bush said he expected the law to begin "changing the culture" of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, for which he said counter-terrorism is now "the No. 1 priority."

The anti-terrorism law was proposed by the administration five days after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Attorney General John Ashcroft and other officials urged Congress to approve it immediately.

But some lawmakers raised concerns about whether the bill amounted to an overreaction that could threaten individual liberties. They held up passage and forced some scaling-back of the new powers the Bush administration had sought.

Ashcroft wanted, for example, to allow authorities to detain indefinitely noncitizens who are suspected of terrorism before charging them. The final measure allows such suspects to be held for only seven days.

Expiration date

Members of Congress also established an expiration date - Dec. 31, 2005 - for the new wiretapping and surveillance powers so they could be reconsidered then.

Once revised, the bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, where it was approved 98-1 on Thursday.

Bush appeared at yesterday's ceremony with a bipartisan cadre of lawmakers behind him, including Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who, as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, largely shaped the money-laundering section of the legislation.

Remaining voices of protest are coming primarily from such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU's Washington national office, complained yesterday that the new law sets too low a threshold for authorities to classify someone as a suspected terrorist. She argued that the law would "usher in a new era of a surveillance society."

"Americans won't know when their computer communications are being monitored," Murphy said in an interview. "They won't know when their credit records have been seized."

Murphy referred to Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and the lone senator to oppose the bill, as a "defender of liberty."

Legislative victory

The enactment of the anti-terrorism measure offered the president a legislative victory after a grueling week for the White House, in which, for the first time since Sept. 11, the credibility of the administration was called seriously into question.

The president returned Monday from China, riding high after a trip in which he appeared as a poised diplomat on the world stage and succeeded in building more support for his campaign against terrorism.

Bush arrived home to a nation in panic over an escalating anthrax crisis, to which his administration responded in confusing and conflicting ways that critics said failed to alert people to obvious dangers.

Some questioned, for example, why federal officials had ordered congressional office buildings to be shut down after an anthrax-laced letter was sent to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle - but then encouraged employees at the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, where the letter is believed to have been handled, to return to work.

Two workers at Brentwood then died of symptoms related to anthrax exposure.

"Members of Congress were given far quicker response than employees of the U.S. Postal Service when we faced this particular crisis," said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat.

Postal workers complained that the administration had rushed to ensure the safety of lawmakers and their staffs while paying little mind to the risks to mail handlers.

Bush defends conduct

The president appeared eager yesterday to put such questions behind him, but not before defending his administration's conduct.

"We've got a great response mechanism in place," Bush said.

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