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Bush signs anti-terror bill

Says tough law will preserve constitutional rights

Saturday, October 27, 2001

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Six and a half weeks after the worst acts of terrorism ever committed on U.S. soil, President Bush signed into law the wide-reaching "USA Patriot Act," which authorizes broad new powers for law enforcement agencies that Congress rejected in less turbulent times.

"We're changing the culture of our various agencies that fight terrorism," Bush said yesterday in a signing ceremony in the White House East Room. He insisted that the law will preserve constitutional rights, although many critics have worried that it signals too much change and an erosion of civil liberties.

The new law "will help law enforcement to identify, to dismantle, to disrupt and to punish terrorists before they strike," Bush said. He said the law replaces legislation "written in the era of rotary telephones."

Surrounding Bush -- and eager for one of the souvenir pens he used to sign the legislation -- were lawmakers and Cabinet members, including Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney has often been missing at official events since Sept. 22 as he remains at a secret secure location in what White House officials say is an effort to preserve the continuity of leadership during the present emergency.

The new law, long sought by Republicans and strongly advocated by Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft, was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress in record time despite pockets of emotional debate and concern about its potential intrusiveness.

Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who ranks No. 3 in the Senate GOP leadership, said the new law's tools will help not only federal law enforcement officials but also permit local officials to become more "aggressively" involved in the fight against terrorism.

Ashcroft said he immediately authorized 94 federal attorneys and 56 FBI field offices to begin implementing the law within the hour after Bush had signed it. For example, by the close of business yesterday, it was expected that federal agents might have reviewed unopened e-mails and voice mails for suspected terrorists that it has had under surveillance and that stacks of intelligence data would be forwarded to federal prosecutors. Until yesterday, that was prohibited.

Federal sources also said some of the more than 900 people detained since Sept. 11, many on immigration violations, might now be prosecuted because of the new powers the law provides to law enforcement officials.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the law "goes a long way to fill the gaps in our national and international counter-terrorism strategy."

The new law's main provisions will permit:

Expanded federal ability to conduct electronic surveillance and nationwide search warrants. That includes roving wiretaps that allow tapping conversations of an individual no matter what phone he or she uses. And it includes wide latitude to screen computers, including e-mail messages and e-mail address books.

FBI access to private records "to protect against international terrorism."

Detention for as long as a week of immigrants suspected of terrorism or of supporting terrorism without their being legally charged with a crime or immigration violations. The new law also permits deportation of foreigners who raise money for terrorist groups.

A requirement that banks find the sources of money in some large private accounts and that foreign banks detail suspect transactions.

In an effort to appease civil libertarians, the law has a sunset provision -- its major provisions expire in 2004 unless extended -- and a provision that the Justice Department prepare reports on how it is affecting civil liberties. Santorum said that provision would give the government time to iron out any problems that surface.

The law also permits individuals to sue the government if personal data is disclosed in a harmful way.

William Webster, a former FBI and CIA director and former federal judge, said he was at first alarmed by the anti-terrorism bill's scope. His fears were mollified, he said, after House and Senate members added the sunset provision and made changes such as limiting detentions to a week rather than allowing an indefinite duration. Also, he noted, judges still will have the last word about what government actions are legal and constitutional. "The American people trust the judiciary," he said.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, after meeting yesterday with FBI Director Robert Mueller, said its lawyers intend to monitor closely the law's implementation because of fears that it will harm civil liberties.

The ACLU is angry that there was only one public hearing before congressional action on the law, which it says gives the federal government "unchecked powers."

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