Anti-terror law expands powers
- By William Matthews
- Oct 26, 2001
President Bush signed anti-terrorism legislation Friday that vastly expands government investigators' authority to conduct electronic surveillance.
The law, called the USA Patriot Act, gives government investigators broad powers to track wireless phone calls, intercept e-mail messages, monitor computer use and listen to voice mail messages.
"Surveillance of communication is another essential tool" in the war on terrorism, Bush said during a White House signing ceremony. He said the new law replaces statutes that were written "in the era of rotary telephones" and are inadequate in an age of e-mail, wireless phones and Internet communications.
Earlier, Attorney General John Ashcroft said expanded surveillance powers are needed so government investigators can better monitor terrorists and their financial backers.
But civil rights advocates said the new law poses serious threats to civil liberties. It gives a green light to "the investigation and surveillance of wholly innocent Americans," said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
And Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the law "has raised serious and legitimate concerns about the expansion of authorities for government surveillance and intelligence-gathering within this country."
The threats to privacy are great, said Leahy (D-Vt.). For example, vast amounts of information are gathered in criminal investigations, including information about people not involved in illegal activity, such as witnesses or acquaintances of the accused. Under the new law, all of that information could be widely shared among government agencies.
Through wiretaps and e-mail intercepts, investigators will collect extensive personal information that is not relevant to an investigation, but which now can also be widely circulated among agencies, Leahy said.
"Such surveillance activities by our government offends our fundamental First Amendment rights of speech and association, and undermines our democratic values," Leahy said. He predicted that some parts of the new law "will face difficult tests in the courts."
But Ashcroft emphasizes the importance of the new surveillance powers in tracking down terrorists. "Communications regarding terrorist offenses such as the use of biological or chemical agents, financing acts of terrorism or materially supporting terrorism will be subject to interception by law enforcement," he said.
The USA Patriot Act was proposed by the Bush administration and rushed through Congress in less than six weeks.
Key provisions will:
* Permit "roving wiretaps" that allow investigators to tap any phone a suspect might use. This provision makes it easier to trace suspects who use several phones, including wireless phones.
* Make it easier for law enforcement officials to gain access to Internet providers' records on e-mail transmissions and other Internet use.
* Require information sharing among criminal investigators and intelligence officers.
The law also permits federal authorities to detain foreigners suspected of involvement in terrorism for up to seven days without filing charges against them. And it gives the Treasury Department new powers to act against foreign banks suspected of money laundering.
Leahy and other lawmakers leery of the new law added a four-year "sunset clause" that causes may of the provisions to expire after four years. The sunset clause and "close congressional oversight will be crucial in making sure that these new law enforcement powers are not abused," Leahy said.