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Friday, 26 October, 2001, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
US anti-terror laws draw fire
Radar, satellite and radio equipment
Critics say government can intercept private information
Kevin Anderson

The US Congress has approved anti-terrorism legislation that will give law enforcement agencies sweeping new powers to monitor and detain suspected terrorists.

The government has enormous, increased power to intercept all e-mail and internet surfing communications

Nadine Strossen, American Civil Liberties Union

Police and the FBI now have greater powers to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and monitor their communications, including over the internet.

Congress did not give the Bush administration everything it wanted, but civil liberties groups said the legislation still left Americans with fewer freedoms and no greater security.

Key provisions of the legislation include:

  • Roving wiretaps which allow authorities to tap whatever communication device a suspect uses with only a single warrant
  • Making it a crime to knowingly harbour a terrorist
  • Allowing authorities to detain immigrants for up to seven days if they are suspected of terrorist activities
  • Giving investigators broader powers to intercept e-mail information

    Attorney General John Ashcroft said: "History's judgements will be harsh, and the people's judgement will be sure, if we fail to use every available resource to prevent future terrorist attacks".

    Safeguards added

    Mr Ashcroft began pressing for broader powers of investigation and detention in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

    He urged Congress to act swiftly, originally saying that he hoped legislators would pass the administration's draft anti-terrorism bill just days after its introduction.

    Congress gave the administration much of what it asked for, but did add some safeguards.

    Senator Patrick Leahy said: "We now have a bill that I'm proud to see go to the president.

    Man uses mobile phone
    Wiretapping will become easier

    "The gestation period has been a few weeks, but it's a heck of a lot better than giving birth to a monster."

    He quoted Benjamin Franklin in laying out the balance he felt needed to be struck. "A people who would trade their liberties for security will get neither," he said.

    But many civil liberty groups feel that the balance was not struck.

    The only compliment that Mikal Condon of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre's (Epic) had for the legislation was that it is due to expire at the end of 2005 - unless renewed by Congress.

    Wider surveillance

    The legislation still contains measures to allow advanced surveillance techniques, including the FBI's controversial internet surveillance system Carnivore.

    The system, which troubles Epic, would allow investigators far greater power to collect e-mail information.

    Unlike other parts of the legislation which are triggered when the attorney general certifies an individual as a suspected terrorist, Ms Condon said the new surveillance powers could be used in any case.

    George W Bush
    Bush has new powers to fight terrorism
    She said the legislation did not address the intelligence and investigative shortcomings that led up to the 11 September attacks.

    "There is no evidence that they were lacking information on 11 September," she said.

    "Everybody's been calling for increased human intelligence, increasing their ability to gather intelligence when what they need is ability to sort through intelligence."

    Goes too far

    The American Civil Liberties Union said the legislation went far beyond what was necessary to combat terrorism.

    ACLU President Nadine Strossen said: "The bottom line is, the provisions we have been opposed to from the beginning have stayed in, such as internet surveillance. The government has enormous increased power to intercept all e-mail and internet surfing communications".

    Wreckage is cut away in New York
    Americans are still recovering from the attacks on New York and Washington
    She was also concerned that the roving wiretap ability would include public internet terminals such as in libraries or cyber cafes with no assurance that authorities would stop monitoring the terminal when the suspect was not using it.

    Wider powers

    The legislation also greatly expands the definition of terrorist activities, covering acts that are now thought of as civil disobedience, she said.

    The legislation also increases the government's powers to detain immigrants suspected of terrorism.

    Elisa Massimino, director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said this aspect of the legislation changed dramatically from the administration┐s original form.

    She said the draft proposal "granted the attorney general great powers to detain any non-citizen on little more than a hunch".

    The final legislation still has a broad definition of terrorism, and the attorney general needed nothing more than reasonable grounds to believe that an immigrant was a possible terrorist, she said.

    But prosecutors have only seven days to start deportation procedures or charge an immigrant with a crime. Otherwise, the person has to be released

    If they can be deported but the attorney general can show that their release would pose a threat to national security, they can be held for up to six months.

    The Justice Department must report to Congress every six months on the use of these expanded powers.

    Risk of abuse

    She added that her organisation would press Congress to exercise careful oversight because the potential for abuse was so high.

    "We're already seeing large numbers of people detained without being told what they are being held and without being charged," she said.

  • See also:

    26 Oct 01 | Americas
    New anti-terror laws for US
    16 Oct 01 | Europe
    EU combats terror funding
    16 Jan 01 | Americas
    Profile: John Ashcroft
    26 Oct 01 | Europe
    US seeks EU help against terror
    10 Oct 01 | Americas
    America's 'most wanted terrorists'
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