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Anti-terrorism proposals worry civil libertarians

Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  

By Manuel Perez-Rivas
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Advocacy groups, legal experts and some members of Congress are voicing strong concerns that a proposal to expand law enforcement powers in order to ratchet up the fight on terrorism could end up treading on civil liberties enjoyed by all Americans.

The Bush administration's anti-terrorism package, which was the subject of hearings in the House and Senate on Monday and Tuesday, has drawn controversy because of provisions critics say affect a variety of privacy and individual rights. They include the detention and deportation of immigrants, the expansion of the government's wiretapping authority, and the easing of grand jury secrecy laws, among other measures.

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Attorney General John Ashcroft and other Justice Department officials have called the package a series of "modest steps" that give the government the tools it needs to effectively fight terrorism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The Bush administration has urged speedy legislative approval.

"I can assure the committee and the American people we are conducting this effort with a total commitment to protect the rights, the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "We will respect, we will safeguard the constitutional protections which we hold dear."

Yet many believe the package, as currently drafted, does not meet that goal.

David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said a basic problem with the package is that it is too sweeping. "It is not in any way carefully calibrated to the threat that we are facing," said Cole, an expert in constitutional law.

Cole said he is most troubled by proposals affecting immigrants, which could lead to the deportation of law-abiding, peaceful non-citizens merely because of "guilt by association." And, he said, the proposals give the attorney general the power to place immigrants in detention merely because of suspicion, without any evidence against them.

A variety of other areas of concern has been cited. Privacy groups have said the package of proposals increases the government's power to monitor online communications, for example. They also fear that provisions ensuring the secrecy of information uncovered in grand jury proceedings -- meant to protect innocent individuals from the release of embarrassing information -- would be loosened. Another concern is that existing restrictions on searches would be eased, not just for terrorists, but for all criminal investigations.

In testimony before Congress and in public statements, the American Civil Liberties Union has spoken out over provisions in three broad areas. They include the provisions affecting immigrants, the changes to surveillance and wiretapping powers, and several other criminal justice measures -- such as the expansion of the government's authority to request secret searches.

ACLU President Nadine Strossen said in an interview that both liberals and conservatives have expressed concern for the preservation of civil liberties, giving her some reason to believe changes will be made to those provisions in the package.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that when Congress takes a closer took at these provisions they will not be passed, or not in the form that they were proposed," she said.

Many groups and experts have asked that lawmakers take time to fully study the implications of the series of proposals, partly out of concern they could get caught up in the strong national desire to act swiftly and strongly in the aftermath of the attacks.

Indeed, legislators showed a desire to tap on the brakes this week, with the House Judiciary Committee postponing action on the bill scheduled for Tuesday.

At Monday's House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, told Ashcroft that both Democrats and Republicans want to move forward quickly with legislation to help in the battle against terrorism.

But, he added, "There are a number of provisions in your measure that give us constitutional trouble."

Brian Forst, a professor of justice, law and society at American University, said many of the provisions in the package would, indeed, give the government more powerful tools to fight terrorism. But the potential for misusing those tools should give lawmakers pause, he said.

"On the one hand, you can see that it could do a lot to help, and on the other hand you can also see how it can be abused," said Forst. He noted the abuses of the McCarthy era, or the government's surveillance of civil rights leaders during the 1960s as lessons that should not be forgotten.

"It all depends on how it's managed," he said. "We have reason to be concerned because of the problems there have been in the past."


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