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The national debate over the Bush administration’s broad anti-terrorism legislation got its most focused airing on Capitol Hill Tuesday. Sticking points are the proposed expansion of federal powers to detain noncitizens and to monitor people in the United States working for foreign governments or international terrorist groups. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft defended the entire bill as critical to preventing further terrorist attacks, but he sounded willing to make changes in both problem areas. As drafted, the measure allows the attorney general to detain any “alien he has reason to believe may commit, further or facilitate” terrorist acts. He can already detain aliens subject to deportation on terrorist grounds. The new language would allow the government to hold in custody those whose deportable violations are relatively minor, such as an expired visa. Said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., “What I’m interested in are others you may want to be able to hold; they may be permanent resident aliens … not subject to deportation kinds of hearings.” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., added later that the bill’s current language would grant the attorney general powers “well beyond” what Ashcroft says he intends. “Obviously we’re going to have to clarify this,” said Ashcroft. “We don’t want to have something which has an effect we don’t intend.” Much of the bill, a massive effort to help federal authorities combat terrorism, is widely supported by Democrats and Republicans — a fact noted frequently in hearings Monday at the House Judiciary Committee and Tuesday in the Senate. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, praised the proposal as a “measured and targeted response, something that is long overdue.” Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has offered his own anti-terrorism bill, which includes some of Ashcroft’s proposals, such as measures making it easier for authorities to trace calls made to and from suspected terrorists. Among other things, the Leahy and Ashcroft bills would allow a federal judge in one part of the country to authorize the government to trace phone lines in multiple jurisdictions, as opposed to needing approval from a judge in each area. Similarly, Ashcroft’s bill would allow authorities to trace e-mail communication, a change he urged lawmakers to accept as necessary to bring law enforcement up to date with the times. But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, expressed problems with the e-mail tracing, noting that it would not only identify the sender and the recipient, as phone traces do now, but also the subject line of an e-mail message. “It seems to me it really goes further than you really want to go,” Grassley said. Ashcroft responded, “We are not asking that we get content or identification of even the titling of the message.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., objected to the bill’s proposed expansion of federal authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under the act, a special court may authorize search and surveillance of suspected foreign spies and terrorists. Federal authorities must demonstrate that the “primary” reason for the surveillance is foreign intelligence gathering. As drafted, the new bill would remove the word “primary” to allow federal authorities to use the information for criminal prosecution as well as foreign intelligence gathering. That change could run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, said Feinstein. Instead, she suggested that “primary” be replaced with “a substantial or significant” reason. Ashcroft seemed to relent. If pressed, he said, he would choose “significant” to replace “primary.” Feinstein also asked about a possible “sunset provision” that would allow the laws to expire after five years unless Congress reauthorized them. “We’d then have an opportunity to take a look and see that they weren’t misused,” she said. Ashcroft disagreed. “If I thought the risk of terrorism was going to sunset in several years, I’d be glad to say we ought to have a sunset provision,” he said. The hearing ended without any formal action from the committee, with some senators asking Ashcroft to return for another session. Meanwhile, negotiations on the proposal are continuing. The hour-long hearing also offered some personal touches. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., left the hearing early to attend the funeral of a man who died at the Pentagon. And Leahy offered condolences to Solicitor General Theodore Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died on the plane that hit the Pentagon. Olson did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, but did sit behind Ashcroft with other DOJ officials in the House the day before.

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