Washington On a resounding 98-1 vote, the Senate cleared sweeping legislation Thursday to help federal law enforcement officials track down suspected terrorists.
The bill was sent to President Bush, who is expected to sign it into law today, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft pledged to swiftly take advantage of the new powers granted to law enforcement to eavesdrop on suspects, secretly search their property, and monitor their Internet communications and voice mail messages. The new law will also enable federal officials to more easily pick up and deport legal immigrants suspected of terrorist involvement.
"The hour that it becomes law, I will issue guidance to each of the 94 United States attorneys' offices and the 56 FBI field offices, directing them to begin immediately implementing this sweeping legislation," Ashcroft said in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Ashcroft first proposed anti-terrorism legislation immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, saying federal law enforcement agencies needed greater authority and were being held back by out-of-date wiretap laws.
But Congress has long struggled with increasing the power of federal law-enforcement officials versus protecting the privacy and civil liberties of citizens. After the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, a coalition of liberals and conservatives watered down counter-terrorism legislation until it was widely considered ineffective.
Under pressure from Ashcroft and the possibility that terrorists might strike again, lawmakers bridged their differences by giving the attorney general much of what he wanted. But they set a four-year expiration date on the measures as an incentive to officials not to abuse the new powers if they wanted to see them renewed.
"I've said several times during this debate what Benjamin Franklin said, that a people who would trade their liberties for security deserve neither," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "And that's what we were after in this. We've been hurt terribly as a nation. We do have to improve our security, and we will do that. If we give up our liberties in improving our security, the terrorists win."
Nevertheless, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., voted against the bill, disagreeing with Leahy's assessment.
"This bill does not strike the right balance between empowering law enforcement and protecting civil liberties," Feingold said.
The ACLU and other advocates for civil liberties, privacy and immigration rights spoke out against the measure as well.
One of the key provisions in the bill would provide roving wiretaps to law enforcement. Instead of asking a judge for permission to eavesdrop every time a suspect changes telephones, federal agents could get permission once to monitor a suspect, even if that person used multiple phones each day.
The legislation also would strengthen money-laundering laws to ban the undeclared movement of more than $10,000 across U.S. borders. U.S. banks maintaining private accounts for foreigners would have to identify the accounts' owners and the source of the deposited funds, and report suspicious transactions.
In addition, the bill would encourage intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies to share information.