Anti-terror bill extends US wiretaps

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The Independent Online

in Washington

After much haggling with the White House, the Senate was poised yesterday to approve a comprehensive anti-terrorism bill that includes provision to expand FBI wiretapping rights, bring in the death penalty for terrorist murders and allow the armed forces to help the police in domestic terrorism cases where chemical or biological weapons were involved.

President Bill Clinton first proposed legislation in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing on 19 April, in which 168 people died. But his $1.5bn (pounds 1bn) measure was swiftly entangled in party feuding, with Republicans seeking to add clauses limiting death row appeal rights, and Democrats tabling scores of anti-gun amendments.

On both issues the administration and the Democratic minority in the Senate have given way. Most of the gun amendments have been dropped, while Mr Clinton has agreed to a provision limiting federal death row appeals to one year after sentencing - meaning that the bill was heading for easy passage in the Senate, and virtually certain approval from the House within the next few weeks.

Despite vehement objections from civil liberties groups fearful that constitutional rights are being infringed, the FBI for the first time is being given "roving" wiretapping rights, allowing it to monitor not one but several lines simultaneously. Its access to the credit card, telephone and hotel records of a suspect will also be greatly expanded.

The measure authorises the recruitment of 1,000 new federal law enforcement officers to specialise in terrorism cases, while chemicals which can be used in explosives - such as the fertiliser employed in the Oklahoma bombing - will henceforth have to be "tagged" with special materials enabling them to be traced.

At the same time, deportation procedures are being speeded up for foreigners suspected of terrorist involvement. On the diplomatic front, the bill bans US foreign aid for countries which assist countries that foster terrorism, while American citizens will be able to go to the US courts to sue foreign governments for damages suffered as a result of a terrorist act.

Meanwhile, Mr Clinton yesterday issued the first veto of his 29-month presidency, blocking a bill that would have cut $16bn of spending from the current budget. Republicans acknowledge they have no chance of mustering the two-thirds majorities in House and Senate needed to override the veto.