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Justice Dept. May Pursue Wider Power to Arrest Terror Suspects

February 08, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice is considering asking Congress for more power to arrest suspected terrorists and to hold them in secret.

Its draft bill, dubbed the "Patriot Act II," would build on the legislation enacted at the urging of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft after the Sept. 11 attacks.

More than 1,200 people were detained then and questioned as possible terrorists. They were not charged with crimes but were held on immigration charges or as material witnesses to a crime. Ashcroft refused to reveal the names of those taken into custody.

Last year, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the government must release the names under the Freedom of Information Act. The new bill proposes to change that act to prohibit the "disclosure of terrorism investigation detainee information." If enacted into law, the proposal would allow the government to keep secret the names of those taken into custody.

A second proposal would give the government greater authority to hold suspects and deny them bail while they await trial.

In recent terrorism-related cases, judges held bail hearings and, in a few instances, released suspects prior to their trials. The releases came after the judges concluded the suspects posed no danger to the public and were unlikely to flee.

The draft bill proposes to add to the law a "presumption for pretrial detention in cases involving terrorism."

"This presumption is warranted," the proposal asserts, "because of the unparalleled magnitude of the danger to the United States and its people posed by acts of terrorism, and because terrorism is engaged in by groups -- many with international connections -- that are often in position to help their members flee or go into hiding."

The draft bill would also set up a DNA database of people associated with terrorist groups. It was circulated within the Department of Justice last month, but a spokeswoman said it has not been approved by Ashcroft or the White House for transmission to Congress.

"There is nothing final here. This is an early draft," said Barbara Comstock, the department's chief spokeswoman. "We are always looking for new ways to protect the American people from terrorists. That should not be surprising.

"During our internal deliberations, many ideas are considered, some are discarded and new ideas emerge in the process," she said.

Staffers on Capitol Hill said they had not seen the proposal.

"This sounds like an internal working draft. As far as we know, it hasn't gone to anyone on the Hill," said Jeff Lungren, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee.

The draft was released Friday by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington.

Georgetown University Law professor David Cole, a frequent critic of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism efforts, said he found the proposal troubling.

"We have not had secret arrests in this country, and this would head us in that direction," Cole said. "If someone is picked up by the government, that should be a public fact. We need to maintain that transparency to assure the government is following the law."

Cole said he was also troubled by proposals that would give the attorney general more authority to deport aliens and to strip Americans of their citizenship if they were shown to be working with a foreign terrorist group.

"This goes far beyond the Patriot Act in permitting spying and wiretaps," said Gregory Nojeim, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office.

The proposal would make it easier for the government to obtain authority to wiretap people suspected of involvement in terrorism, even if they could not be tied to a particular foreign group. Nojeim also said the proposal sought to lift court orders that have barred police in some cities from spying on dissidents.

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