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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 23:50 GMT 00:50 UK
Civil liberties fears over terrorism bill
National Security Team
The Bush administration wants broader powers for law enforcement
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Civil libertarians in the US are raising concerns about Bush administration proposals to give law enforcement broader powers in the wake of the terror attacks last week.

Groups say that the bills are being "shoved" through Congress, and they have urged Congress not to pass laws that trample civil liberties and do not increase security.

This proposal addresses issues that are well beyond the scope of fighting terrorism

Electronic Privacy Information Centre
But Attorney General John Ashcroft and members of Congress say that they bear a responsibility not only to protect US citizens from terrorism but also to protect the rights of all Americans.

They say that they aim to respect the rights and privacy of all citizens even as they seek expanded powers to investigate terrorist threats.

Broader powers sought

Within days of the attacks in New York and Washington, Mr Ashcroft called in Congress to give authorities broader surveillance powers.
Osama bin Laden
The US government is seeking more surveillance powers to combat terrorism

"It's clear to me that we need to upgrade and strengthen a number of laws in the United States," Attorney General Ashcroft said.

Laws needed to be updated not only in light of the threat of terrorism but also in light of changing technologies.

Mr Ashcroft said that current law allows them to obtain wiretap authority for a specific telephone number and not for an individual.

He said that this would allow law enforcement to follow an individual regardless of whether they used a mobile phone, landline phone or different disposable mobile phones.

"You understand that assigning the authority only to the hardware means that when a person changes hardware, we lose our capacity to surveil," he said.

The administration is moving quickly to gain approval from Congress for the expanded powers.

Last weekend, Mr Ashcroft and key members of Congress held classified meetings to discuss the issue, and the administration sent draft legislation to Congress on Wednesday.

Proposal criticised

But a broad coalition of 150 groups from across the political spectrum blasted the draft bill known as the Mobilization Against Terrorism Act.

These actions offend the Constitution and are an affront to the millions of law-abiding immigrants in our country as well as the millions of other citizens who are sons and daughters of immigrants

Anthony Romero, ACLU

"This proposal addresses issues that are well beyond the scope of fighting terrorism," said David Sobel of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that the bill would be a "major expansion of government's power to detain and deport immigrants who he believes may engage in terrorist activity or who 'may endanger the national security.'"

The group fears that potential deportees would have no way to contest these decisions and that this response to an emergency would become a permanent part of US immigration law.

"These actions offend the Constitution and are an affront to the millions of law-abiding immigrants in our country as well as the millions of other citizens who are sons and daughters of immigrants," said Anthony D Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

Quick action unlikely

Mr Ashcroft had hoped the legislation could be passed before the week is out, but that looks unlikely.

Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy is considering crafting an alternative to the administration's Mobilization Against Terrorism Act.

And key Republicans say that they will probably split the administrations proposal in two, quickly approving less contentious requests and leaving more difficult aspects for later.

Republican Leader in the House of Representatives Dick Armey said that Congress would move quickly to expand powers the government had to deal with drugs or espionage cases to apply also to terrorism investigations.

Expanded wiretap and deportation powers would take longer, he said, but he added that Congress should be able to address even the contentious issues by late October.

See also:

16 Sep 01 | Americas
US legal chief seeks tougher laws
20 Sep 01 | Europe
EU gears up to fight terrorism
19 Sep 01 | Europe
EU acts on terrorism
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