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Revamped anti-terrorism bill hits House

U.S. lawmakers introduce a bipartisan bill that could greatly expand the electronic surveillance powers of police and ratchet up penalties relating to certain computer crimes.

U.S. lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill Tuesday that could greatly expand the electronic surveillance powers of police and ratchet up penalties relating to certain computer crimes.

Known as the Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act, the bill was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives by F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and is expected to be debated in committee Wednesday afternoon.

"It's incredibly likely to make it through," said an aide to the House Committee on the Judiciary.

An earlier version of the bill, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), was held up over civil rights concerns last week. The members of the House Judiciary Committee worked through the weekend and late Monday to draft the new PATRIOT Act, said a staffer.

If enacted, the new bill would add to the powers of law enforcement and intelligence communities, allowing them to gather and share information, detain immigrants, pursue those who cooperate with suspected terrorists, and freeze the bank accounts and financial networks of terrorist organizations.

The bill was modified to include a narrower definition of "terrorism" that could limit some powers granted in the previous draft highlighted by civil rights advocates. Those powers include near-blanket rights to wiretap any communications device used by a person in any way connected to a suspected terrorist; the power to detain indefinitely an immigrant connected to an act of terrorism; and the classification of any computer hacking crime as a terrorist offense.

"McCarthy all over again"
Despite that change, the newest bill still falls short of clearly defining what crimes should be considered terrorist acts, said Michael Erbschloe, vice president and analyst at technology market researcher Computer Economics.

The bill lists more than 40 criminal offenses, including computer intrusion and damaging a computer, and defines those offenses as terrorism if they are "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion...or to retaliate against government conduct."

PATRIOT bill in a nutshell
Concerns for civil liberties have softened some provisions of the original Anti-Terrorism Act, but the PATRIOT bill still has teeth.

Here's what it would do:

Broaden law enforcement's ability to gather intelligence extensively, including "roving" wiretaps and the communications of computer trespassers.

But civil rights advocates worry that authorities still could:
• look at e-mail headers without a warrant;
• wiretap any computer or communications devices used by a suspect with a single, blanket court order;
• share information with any intelligence agency and some administration officials;
• and make minor computer intrusions, such as Web site defacement, a terrorist offense if committed with the intent to intimidate or coerce government officials or retaliate against the government.

Allow immigration officials to detain and deport suspected terrorists and those who lend support to terrorists. But the bill defines terrorism broadly and the INS already can deport anyone who is a threat to national security or engaged in terrorist activity.

Add terrorism and aiding terrorists to the list of criminal offenses punishable by up to life imprisonment, and remove the statute of limitations. But the provisions may violate the principles of proportionality: Online vandals who deface a Web site could, conceivably, face a sentence of life imprisonment.

Aim to disable the financial infrastructure of terrorist organizations, including broadened money-laundering statutes and confiscation of assets related to terrorist activities.

Provide benefits to public-safety officers disabled by the Sept. 11 attacks and allow the attorney general to award up to $2 million for rewards.

Source: Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act of 2001

Erbschloe, the author of "Information Warfare: How to Survive Cyber Attacks," said that left a lot of leeway.

"It could be McCarthy all over again," he said, referring to the political witch-hunts carried out a half-century ago by the House Committee on Un-American Activities under Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose hearings on the "Communist threat" led to the jailing and blacklisting of a number of Americans. "We need to more clearly define what a terrorist is."

Suicide hijackers on Sept. 11 used commercial jets to ram the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, leaving some 6,000 people missing and assumed dead, and sparking the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history.

Congress last week approved a $343 billion defense package, diverting some funds from missile defense to counter-terrorism. More than 500 people already have been detained by the FBI in the terrorist dragnet.

The manhunt has thrown a spotlight on law enforcement surveillance powers, including the potential expansion of eavesdropping technology on the Internet. Several Internet service providers said they were asked to install a wiretap device known as Carnivore after the attacks. Carnivore, since renamed DCS1000, has the ability to capture the contents of e-mail messages and other data.

Hasty passage
Attorney General John Ashcroft has taken a hard line on the need for new legislation to assist police in their investigations, calling for hasty passage of anti-terrorism legislation that continued this weekend. "Talk does not stop terrorism," Reuters quoted him as saying.

In comments last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he asked for better "tools" to help the FBI chase terrorists, likening the agency's current situation to "sending our troops into the modern field of battle with antique weapons."

"Technology has dramatically outpaced our statutes," he said. "Law enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephones--not e-mail, the Internet, mobile communications and voice mail."

Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, have cautioned against expanding surveillance powers unnecessarily, arguing that there is little evidence that tougher surveillance laws could have prevented last month's tragedy.

A previous anti-terrorism bill was flawed, they said, because it would declare hackers and online vandals "terrorists" and broaden the FBI's ability to wiretap the Internet. The latest House version of the bill steps back from completely allowing intelligence and FBI officials to trade surveillance information on Americans.

Because of the controversy over the anti-terrorism bill, the measures ran into a congressional wall last week, when key senators and representatives refused to sign off on certain provisions of the package. This past weekend, the members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees met behind closed doors for repeated sessions with the Bush administration and Department of Justice officials to hammer out a compromise.

While the House Judiciary Committee will use the latest draft as a foundation for its discussions, the Senate is moving more deliberately on the legislation. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., postponed a Tuesday Judiciary Committee hearing on its version of the bill so that members could concentrate on rewriting problem sections.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been increasing pressure on Congress to get the legislation passed.

Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly told Republican senators that the president wanted legislation to sign by the end of the week.

Reuters contributed to this report.