Bush administration proposes sweeping antiterrorism laws

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft today asked Congress to approve a sweeping series of new laws intended, in part, to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to track communications over telephone and computer networks.

But the legislation is raising alarms among some lawmakers and civil libertarians, who expressed reservations and warned that such laws could violate constitutional protections.

Ashcroft, appearing before the House Judiciary Committee this afternoon, said terrorists using networks to mask communications have a "competitive advantage."

"I regret to inform you that we are today sending our troops into the modern field of battle with antique weapons. It is not a prescription for victory," said Ashcroft.

The Bush administration's proposal would expand the government's wiretap authority, allowing law enforcement agencies to seek one order to track communications in any jurisdiction, regardless of whether they are by voice or e-mail. It also would give enforcement agencies almost ubiquitous ability to monitor an individual, regardless of what form of communication the suspect uses.

Current law requires investigators to seek court approval in each jurisdiction for each device being monitored. That law is "ill adapted for use in communications over multiple cell phones and computer networks," said Ashcroft.

"We're not asking the law to expand, just to grow as technology grows," he added.

The legislation would also redefine what a terrorist is, giving the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service the ability to detain people suspected of being affiliated with terrorist organizations. It would also provide new legal tools to pursue suspected terrorists' finances.

The Bush administration wants fast action. "American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future terrorist acts," said Ashcroft. "The danger ... did not pass with the atrocities" committed Sept. 11, he said.

"I believe there is unquestionable need for such legislation," said committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.). "In fact, I am convinced that our homeland security depends upon it."

But some lawmakers want to first examine the impact of the legislation carefully.

"Some have said it's unconstitutional on its face," said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) "Let me be more polite: We're troubled; we're deeply troubled."

A key concern is that the laws go beyond terrorists and could be used in the prosecution of routine criminal cases. One provision that's raising concerns would allow U.S. prosecutors to use wiretap information obtained by foreign governments, even if the collection of that information violated U.S. search-and-seizure protections. Others say it would justify the broad use of the FBI's e-mail search technology, formerly known as Carnivore.

At a press briefing today, civil libertarians said they're worried about the speed at which this legislation may move through Congress.

Jerry Berman, who heads the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy rights group in Washington, said there may be a need for new legal authorities, "but there is potential serious collateral damage to our Constitution and civil liberties in the attorney general's bill."

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