Washington President Bush signed an anti-terrorism bill Friday that gives police unprecedented ability to search, seize, detain or eavesdrop in their pursuit of possible terrorists. "This government will enforce this law with all the urgency of a nation at war," he said.
Federal officials said they plan to use the new powers right away, prompting civil libertarians to voice anew their concerns that cherished American freedoms will be sacrificed in the interest of safety. The American Civil Liberties Union pledged to monitor police actions closely, and scheduled a meeting with FBI Director Robert Mueller.
"This bill goes light years beyond what is necessary to combat terrorism," said Laura Murphy, ACLU Washington director. "While we are ourselves concerned for the country's safety, we are also concerned by the attorney general's apparent gusto to implement certain provisions in the bill that threaten liberty." John Ashcroft, who pressed hard for the bill's passage, said Thursday he would use the new powers quickly.
Bush said the legislation "upholds and respects" personal freedoms protected by the Constitution. But given the magnitude of the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, the nation had little choice but to update surveillance procedures "written in the era of rotary telephones" to better combat today's sophisticated terrorists.
"We may never know what horrors our country was spared by the diligent and determined work of our police forces ... under the most trying conditions," Bush said. "They deserve our full support and every means of help that we can provide."
Lawmakers, concerned about possible abuse of power, put an expiration date on part of it. Unless Congress renews the anti-terrorism law before Dec. 31, 2005, the eavesdropping sections expire.
The president, an American flag pin on his lapel, signed the bill in an East Room ceremony along with Vice President Dick Cheney, homeland security director Tom Ridge, Mueller, CIA Director George Tenet and nine members of Congress.
He signed his name with one pen, handed it to House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and distributed souvenir pens to everyone else. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., took pictures from the stage with his own camera.
Leahy told reporters afterward that it is up to Congress specifically their two committees to make sure through "constant oversight" that federal authorities are not too heavy-handed with their new enforcement powers.
Regarding abuse of power concerns, Leahy said, "We have got to stop thinking about the Dillinger ... days of law enforcement, and start thinking of the realities of 2001. No matter what terror attacks we face today, we're going to face more next year, and the year after. This is something that is going to exist long after all of us are no longer in office, and we've got to make sure we do the things to protect our nation."
Under the new law, the FBI has expanded wiretapping and electronic surveillance authority. It allows nationwide jurisdiction for search warrants and electronic surveillance devices, including legal expansion of those devices to e-mail and the Internet. Agents can, for example, use roving wiretaps to monitor any telephone used by a terrorism suspect, rather than getting separate authorizations for each phone that person uses.
The law sets strong penalties for those who harbor or finance terrorists, and establishes new punishments for possessing biological weapons. It makes it a federal crime to commit an act of terrorism against a mass transit system. It increases the overall number of crimes considered terrorist acts and toughens the punishment for committing them.
Also, police would have greater ability to secretly search people's homes and business records, and to listen in on conversations over the telephone or computers.
The House and Senate approved Bush's anti-terrorism package in less than two months, skipping much of the normal committee process. Lawmakers say they still came up with a good bill.
Senators insisted on including money-laundering stipulations to thwart the flow of money to terrorist groups and protect the U.S. banking system from illicit money.