US rushes through new laws to extend powers of the FBI

War on terrorism: Legislation
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The Independent US

President Bush is expected to sign a far reaching anti-terrorism bill that will greatly extend the search, wiretapping and internet-eavesdropping rights of the FBI and increase the period of detention for a foreign citizen suspected of terrorist activities.

The measures, which have disquieted civil liberties groups here, swept through the House on Wednesday by 356 votes to 66. Following the Senate's approval, which is considered certain, the groundbreaking bill is likely to go to the White House today.

Among the key provisions are "roving wiretaps", allowing the federal authorities to tap any phone a suspect might use, rather than a single phone. It will become much easier for the FBI to obtain nationwide internet and e-mail search warrants and share the information with other intelligence services. Criminal penalties for terrorism-related offences will be increased, while security on the notoriously porous US/Canada border will be stepped up.

The speed of the bill's passage – remarkable by the usual convoluted standards of the legislative process here – has raised charges that Congress has been stampeded into draconian action, whose unforeseen consequences it will soon come to regret. In fact, however, several of the most extreme demands of John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, have been dropped or watered down.

"This bill is far better than than the one proposed to us by the Bush administration. We have done the White House a great favour by taking the time to read and improve this bill before passing it," Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, said last night.

Originally Mr Ashcroft had sought the right to detain foreign suspects for an unlimited period without pressing charges. That period has been reduced to seven days, after which, failing criminal charges or the instigation of deportation proceeding, the suspect must be released.

In addition there will be a "sunset" period of four years, after which the extra wiretapping and surveillance powers for the FBI will automatically lapse, failing specific prior renewal by Congress. The FBI , moreover, will have to inform a judge when it passes on grand jury and wiretap information to other US intelligence agencies.

But these safeguards are unlikely to satisfy civil liberties groups, who complain that innocent individuals will be caught up in the anti-terrorist net and argue that there is nothing to stop these emergency powers being used by unscrupulous prosecutors in ordinary criminal cases.

The "roving wiretap" provision is particularly worrying. "It's difficult to challenge the gathering of information about you, and even to know about it, and then it's shared with other agencies," one civil rights campaigner said.

Since 11 September, some 800 people, many of them Americans but many foreign nationals, have been detained by the authorities and held, in some cases virtually incommunicado, on relatively minor immigration offences. Many have been subsequently released – but not without violation of their basic constitutional rights.