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Senate passes terror bill
Ann Harrison, SecurityFocus 2001-10-12

Lawmakers overwhelmingly reject privacy amendments, and cyber libertarians call the outlook 'bleak'.

After three hours of debate, the U.S. Senate voted late Thursday night to pass an anti-terrorism bill that allows police to conduct some Internet surveillance without a court order.

The Uniting and Strengthening America (USA) Act also sanctions "roving wiretaps" and the detention of non-citizens for up to seven days without charging them with a crime. In addition, the bill expands the ability of the government to conduct secret searches and makes it easier for U.S. criminal investigators and intelligence officers to share information about suspected terrorists, and prosecute those who knowingly harbor them.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) cast the lone dissenting vote on the USA Act, after his efforts to limit the surveillance powers of the Act were firmly rebuffed. The Senate voted 96-1 for an unaltered version of the bill.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers are considering a bill nearly identical to the USA Act, but which would "sunset", or expire, some of the Act's enhanced electronic surveillance powers in December 2004. Under the House bill, the President could extend those provisions until December, 2006, if he finds it to be in the national interest.

Once a measure is passed in the House, differences between the two bills will likely be worked out in a conference committee, which would draft proposed legislation for President Bush to sign into law as early as next week.

Civil libertarian groups, including the Washington D.C.-based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), fear that the expanded police powers of the USA Act could be used to violate the rights of citizens. Jim Dempsey, deputy director of the CDT, says that the group's concerns about civil liberties remain unaddressed.

"It is a bleak legislative picture right now in terms of civil liberties," says Dempsey. "Debate in the Senate was cut off and efforts by the House Judicial Committee to moderate parts of that bill are now being rejected by the House leadership. It looks like there will be a major expansion of government surveillance authority without any meaningful judicial control or meaningful standards, and they apply not only to terrorism cases but to all investigations... It is a very sad day for civil liberties and a bad day for democracy."

The White House, which has been pushing for anti-terrorism legislation since the September 11th attacks, applauded the passage of the USA Act. In a statement, President Bush praised lawmakers, asserting that the bill would give law enforcement "essential, additional tools to combat terrorism and safeguard America against future terrorist attacks.

"This important legislation respects our constitution, while allowing us to treat terrorist acts the same as serious drug crimes and organized crime, and strengthens our ability to share information to disrupt, weaken and eliminate global terrorist networks," said Bush.

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