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Senate takes up anti-terrorism package
Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate is moving toward final approval of an anti-terrorism package giving police new powers to secretly search homes, tap telephone conversations and track Internet use despite warnings from human rights and privacy advocates that the legislation goes too far.
The Senate will vote on President Bush's anti-terrorism legislation before leaving Thursday, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who chairs the Judiciary Committee. "There is no question that we will vote on this piece of legislation today. And we will pass this legislation today," he said.
Since the terrorist attacks, Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have demanded legislation to expand the FBI's wiretapping and electronic surveillance authority, impose stronger penalties on those who harbor or finance terrorists and increase punishments of terrorists.
"These laws will help ensure that Americans will never be violated in the way we were on September 11," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill, approved by the House 357-66 on Wednesday, goes to the White House for Bush's signature after Senate approval.
Some senators are unhappy with the final product. "This bill does not strike the right balance between empowering law enforcement and protecting civil liberties," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
But Leahy said negotiators have placed safeguards on the legislation, like a four-year expiration date on the wiretapping and electronic surveillance portion, court permission before snooping into suspects' formerly private educational records and court oversight over the FBI's use of a powerful e-mail wiretap system.
"We can have our security and we can have our civil liberties, but only if we have checks and balances," Leahy said.
However, human rights and privacy advocates contend many problems remain in the final compromise.
"These new and unchecked powers could be used against American citizens who are not under criminal investigation, immigrants who are here within our borders legally, and also against those whose First Amendment activities are deemed to be a threat to national security by the attorney general," an American Civil Liberties Union letter says.
One of the most contentious portions of Bush's proposal would have allowed the attorney general to detain indefinitely until deportation any immigrant suspected of terrorism. House and Senate negotiators placed safeguards on that proposal by forcing to the attorney general to start deportation procedures immediately, charge the person with a crime or release the foreigner in seven days.
Some human rights advocates want it changed even more so that immigrants would not have to stay in jail while their cases go through the deportation process.
That "can result in a virtual life sentence, and the bill provides only the barest of judicial oversight of the attorney general's new power," said Elisa Massimino, director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
However, senators are expected to approve the bill before the end of Thursday.
"I expect a pretty overwhelming vote, and that's how it should be," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said.
The president praised the quick movement of the legislation. "I look forward to signing this strong bipartisan plan into law so that we can combat terrorism and prevent future attacks," Bush said in a statement.
------The bill number is H.R. 3162.
On the Net: Bill text: http://thomas.loc.gov