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Ashcroft faces congressional worries over proposed law changes

Attorney General John Ashcroft
Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies before the House Judiciary Committee.  


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Proposals to expand law enforcement powers to combat terrorism may run into congressional roadblocks after concern was expressed Monday about the possible trampling of constitutional rights.

The worries were expressed as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft urged lawmakers to quickly approve a legislative package that would broaden law enforcement surveillance powers and ease restrictions on the ability of U.S. authorities to detain or deport suspected alien terrorists.

The package, crafted in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, was lauded as just and necessary by House Republicans. But some Democrats said they fear some of the provisions would not pass constitutional muster, a concern that has also been raised by civil liberties and conservative groups.

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Among the proposals U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has drafted to combat terrorists:

- Ease restrictions on wiretap and search warrant requests

- One wire tap order could be valid nationwide

- Allow law enforcement to seize suspected terrorists' voice mail with search warrant

- Expand mandatory detention for those deemed threat to national security

- Authorize of search and surveillance in U.S. of non-Americans up to a year

- Allow broader disclosure of grand jury information

"There are a number of amendments in your proposals ... that give us constitutional trouble," said Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "We've got to get these guys. But indefinite detention has never been allowed by the courts."

Other Democrats said the definition of terrorism might be overly broad. But Ashcroft said time is of the essence and argued that law enforcement officers are armed with "antique weapons" in the battle against terrorism. He said laws have not kept up with advances in technology and investigators are hindered as a result.

"Terrorism is a clear and present danger to Americans today," Ashcroft said. "Intelligence information available to the FBI indicates a potential for additional terrorist incidents."

The package outlined by Ashcroft would ease restrictions on wiretaps and search warrant requests. For example, the legislation would allow one court to authorize wiretaps for a number of different jurisdictions.

The measure would also allow federal investigators to seize suspected terrorists' voice mail messages with a search warrant.

"We're not asking for the laws to expand, just grow as technology has grown," the attorney general said.

Rep. John Conyers
Rep. John Conyers  

On the question of immigrants, the legislation would authorize surveillance of non-Americans in the United States for up to a year. Ashcroft also wants to allow broader disclosure of secret grand jury information, including, for example, sharing it with intelligence operatives.

The legislation would also make it a crime for anyone to harbor terrorists and would allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to detain or remove individuals with ties to terrorist groups. Under current law, a connection must exist to a specific individual.





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