WASHINGTON — White House and Senate negotiators said late Wednesday they had reached an "agreement in principle" on anti-terrorism legislation. The announcement came shortly after a scaled-down version of the administration-backed bill had unanimously cleared the House Judiciary Committee.
The two developments improved the odds that both houses of Congress could vote as early as next week on legislation that would grant law enforcement sweeping new investigative powers, but has been roundly criticized by civil liberties advocates.
The anti-terrorism legislation would greatly expand law enforcement's ability to conduct electronic surveillance, stiffen criminal penalties in terrorist cases and extend the amount of time foreign nationals can be detained when they are suspected of being involved in terrorist activity.
The Justice Department drafted the legislation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But the measure has moved much more slowly on Capitol Hill than the White House had hoped; many lawmakers and civil liberties advocates expressed concern that the legislation would trample rights to privacy and due process.
Senate negotiators gave no details of their late-hour agreement. "These have been complex and difficult negotiations, but after much hard effort we have completed work on this bipartisan agreement," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a prepared statement.
But aides familiar with the negotiations said Leahy and the Democrats yielded substantial ground, particularly on provisions that would give law enforcement greater authority to conduct electronic surveillance.
"We gave a whole lot more than we got there," said one Democratic aide, who cited a "sea change" in the momentum of the negotiations after the White House stepped up pressure on lawmakers to produce a deal or risk being blamed in the event of another attack.
The bill grants Ashcroft's request for authority to deploy so-called roving wiretaps, in which investigators can tap all of a suspect's communications, rather than having to request permission to place taps on a single telephone line.
The measure allows a single court to grant investigators authority to deploy wiretaps across multiple jurisdictions. Investigators would also have greater latitude to eavesdrop on e-mail and other computer communications without first having to justify such actions before a judge. Leahy had protested that provision, and apparently secured an agreement that law enforcement would not access the e-mail content in such searches, only the address information.
And while the House compromise calls for all of these new wiretapping powers to expire after two years, sources said there is no such "sunset" provision built into the Senate language.
Ashcroft also prevailed in the Senate negotiations on the definition of terrorism, sources said. This was a crucial point, because the legislation gives authorities the enhanced ability to pursue individuals who harbor terrorists or provide money or other aid to organizations with links to terrorist activity.
The Senate deal also contains language giving the secretary of State power to designate organizations as terrorist operations "in consultation with the attorney general or at the request of the attorney general." That would give Ashcroft and his successors much greater influence over such designations than they would have under the language drafted in the House legislation.
But aides said one of the most controversial of the White House's proposals was scaled back considerably: a provision that would have allowed the Justice Department to detain foreign nationals indefinitely merely by asserting that a suspect posed a terrorist threat.
Under terms of the Senate agreement, authorities would be allowed to detain foreign nationals a maximum of seven days before being required to either file charges or release the suspect. That language is identical to the approach in the House bill.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee approved a separate version of the bill Wednesday evening after making minor changes.
"This bill represents the essence of compromise," said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).
Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this report.