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Ashcroft says surveillance powers should stand

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is warning Congress not to tinker with the Internet surveillance powers that the USA Patriot Act awarded to federal police.

The Bush administration is warning Congress not to tinker with the Internet surveillance powers that the USA Patriot Act awarded to federal police.

In a four-page letter to the Senate on Thursday, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that defanging the controversial law, which has been criticized by every major Democratic presidential contender, would "undermine our ongoing campaign to detect and prevent catastrophic terrorist attacks." Were Congress to vote to amend the USA Patriot Act, Ashcroft indicated, President Bush would veto the bill.

Ashcroft was responding to a proposal in the Senate called the Security and Freedom Ensured Act (Safe), which would amend the USA Patriot Act by slapping limits on current police practices relating to surveillance and search warrants. It is sponsored by Republican Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho and has 12 co-sponsors, including two other Republicans.

Many portions of the Safe Act affect the ability of federal police to conduct Internet surveillance against not only terrorists but also suspected perpetrators of a broad range of drug-related, computer hacking and white collar crimes. The measure would amend the USA Patriot Act to require, for instance, that electronic-surveillance orders specify either the identity or location of the suspect and that the person be there at the time--a departure from current practice.

"This is an overheated attack on a very modest bill," said Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the

Ashcroft identifies no terrorist plots that were thwarted by the existence of the USA Patriot Act, Edgar said. "It doesn't contain a single real example of why passage of the Safe Act would impede antiterrorism efforts. It's based entirely on speculation and misleading, slanted legal analysis."

Another section of the Safe Act that Ashcroft criticized would increase privacy protections for library patrons who use public computers for e-mail and Web browsing.

"The Safe Act would make it more difficult, in some circumstances, to obtain information about e-mails sent from public computer terminals at libraries than it would be to obtain the same information about e-mails sent from home computers," Ashcroft said. "Ironically, it would extend a greater degree of privacy to activities that occur in a public place than to those taking place in a home."

In Bush's State of the Union address earlier this month, the president called on Congress to renew the USA Patriot Act. Some portions--though not all--expire Dec. 31.

When enacting the USA Patriot Act in a hurried response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Congress made it much easier for federal police to obtain "pen register" and "trap and trace" orders that could identify a suspect's e-mail correspondents and Web sites visited. The Safe Act would permit those portions of the law to expire at the end of next year. But Ashcroft said: "It will still be needed by law enforcement after Dec. 31, 2005, as the Internet is in no danger of disappearing."

The Safe Act was introduced in the Senate in late October, and it has not had a hearing in the Senate Judiciary committee. A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives.