Washington President Bush on Friday signed a sweeping anti-terrorism bill into law, giving police and intelligence agencies vast new powers to "counter a threat like no other our nation has ever faced."
"Today, we take an essential step in defeating terrorists while protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans," Bush said in an East Room ceremony even as the government grappled with a series of anthrax cases that may be linked to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"This government will enforce this law with all the urgency of a nation at war," Bush said.
The legislation, while somewhat weakened from the administration's original proposal, expands the FBI's wiretapping and electronic surveillance authority and imposes stronger penalties for harboring or financing terrorists. It increases the number of crimes considered terrorist acts and toughens the punishment for committing them.
The bill also gives police wide-ranging new anti-terrorism powers to secretly search people's homes and business records and to eavesdrop on telephone and computer conversations.
"This law will give intelligence and law enforcement officials new tools to fight a present danger," Bush said.
The ceremony, attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, lawmakers and uniformed law enforcement officials, came one day after Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Justice Department will begin using the new powers immediately.
"Upon the president's signature, I will direct investigators and prosecutors to begin immediately seeking court orders to intercept communications related to an expanded list of crimes under the legislation," he said.
Lawmakers, worried about possible abuse of the new wiretapping and surveillance powers, placed a four-year cap on that part of the legislation.
"It gives us the time to investigate whether there were any outrageous abuses," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.
The House and Senate approved Bush's anti-terrorism package in less than two months, skipping much of the normal committee process in their haste. Lawmakers say they still came up with a good bill.
"The gestation period has been a few weeks. But it's a heck of a lot better than to have given birth to a monster, and we didn't do that," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.
Critics disagreed. "It is still dangerous legislation, and unfortunately there are still too many weaknesses in the bill that could end up curbing and infringing fundamental civil rights and liberties," said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People For the American Way.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., was the only senator to vote against the package. "This bill does not strike the right balance between empowering law enforcement and protecting civil liberties," Feingold said.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, retorted: "I don't know anybody in this country who's afraid of their law enforcement people at this time. They're afraid of terrorism."
The new legislation allows nationwide jurisdiction for search warrants and electronic surveillance devices, including legal expansion of those devices to e-mail and the Internet. It also authorizes the use of roving wiretaps, in which officials get orders that allow them to tap whatever telephone a person uses instead of one telephone at a time.
Senators also insisted on tacking money-laundering stipulations into the bill to thwart the flow of money to terrorist groups and protect the U.S. banking system from illicit money.
The House inserted an expiration date for the new wiretapping and electronic surveillance powers. Under the bill, Congress has to renew the anti-terrorism legislation before Dec. 31, 2005, or the eavesdropping sections expire.
Ashcroft and Bush fought strongly against that provision, but Republican leaders in the House told them the bill could not muster a majority without it.