Congress slows surveillance changes

Attorney General John Ashcroft's hope for quick congressional approval of new rules to aid in the war against terrorists faded after two days of hearings in which lawmakers from both parties worried that the changes he proposed would endanger civil liberties.

Ashcroft asked for a range of new police powers, but members of Congress questioned whether Ashcroft was asking for too much too fast. And Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) postponed a vote on Ashcroft's requests for at least a week.

In appearances before the House Judiciary Committee Sept. 24 and the Senate Judiciary Committee Sept. 25, Ashcroft said swift action is needed to revise federal laws that govern wiretaps and other electronic surveillance and expand the authority of immigration officials and prosecutors.

"Every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage," Ashcroft said. "We are today sending our troops into the modern field of battle with antique weapons. It is not a prescription for victory." A key change would permit a federal court to issue a single wiretap or interception order that would apply to multiple forms of communication. Thus one order would permit investigators to intercept e-mail messages, and landline and wireless phone calls. Under current law, separate orders are required for each intercept.

Existing laws are decades old and "were crafted for rotary telephones —not e-mail, the Internet, mobile communications and voice mail," Ashcroft said.

However, conservative Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) urged fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee not to "blindly expand law enforcement's investigative authority, or the government's prosecutorial authority." First conduct a thorough examination of why current authority is inadequate, he said.

From the other end of the political spectrum, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) also called for caution. "If we quickly cast aside our constitutional form of government, then the enemy will not be the terrorists, it will be us," Conyers warned.

The moderate Democratic Leadership Council supported Ashcroft, saying the change would "essentially bring outdated wiretapping laws into the Information Age, reflecting the way people actually communicate and travel."

Also included among Ashcroft's proposed changes is an expansion of the use of the FBI's Carnivore e-mail intercepting system and a reduction of judicial oversight of government surveillance activities, according to the Electronic Privacy Information Center.


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