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THE NATION / THE 9/11 ATTACKS: TWO YEARS LATER

Bush Wants to 'Untie' Laws to Fight Terror

The president's push for added powers comes amid a growing debate over the Patriot Act.

September 11, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

QUANTICO, Va. — On the eve of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush called on Congress to enact additional laws to "untie the hands of our law enforcement officials so they can fight and win the war against terror."

In an address at the FBI's national training academy, Bush threw his support behind proposals that he said would make it easier for the government to detain suspected terrorists and get information about their comings and goings without a court order. He also called for an increase in the number of terrorism-related crimes punishable by the death penalty.

The speech put the president in the middle of a growing national debate over the USA Patriot Act, the sweeping terror-fighting law that Congress enacted six weeks after Sept. 11. Some members of Congress are looking to roll back provisions of the law, which gave the government expanded power to conduct unannounced searches and to obtain business and other records through a secret intelligence tribunal. Dozens of communities across the country have passed resolutions condemning the law, saying it tips the balance too much in favor of law enforcement at the expense of civil liberties.

Bush's embrace of added powers prompted concern among civil-liberties groups that the administration was preparing to push a broader sequel to the law, dubbed "Patriot II" by critics. White House and Justice Department officials denied any such agenda, saying the measures were contained in legislation that had already been introduced.

Still, civil liberties groups and some members of Congress decried the proposals. Any legislation is apt to have a far more difficult time passing Congress than the original law, which was approved overwhelmingly. The debate over the Patriot Act is also quickly shaping up as a presidential campaign issue.

In a statement, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "We need to know more about the tools that are already available" before enacting new anti-terrorism legislation.

In his speech, Bush argued that many of the "tools" he was endorsing were already being used in drug cases and other federal criminal investigations.

"Under current federal law, there are unreasonable obstacles to investigating and prosecuting terrorism, obstacles that don't exist when law enforcement officials are going after embezzlers or drug traffickers," Bush said. "For the sake of the American people, Congress should change the law and give law enforcement officials the same tools they have to fight terror that they have to fight other crime."

The most controversial proposal would permit the attorney general to obtain phone records and other information about terrorism suspects using "administrative subpoenas," which are issued unilaterally by an agency without the oversight of a court or grand jury. Justice officials argue that the power is needed in terror cases where time is of the essence; they say the subpoenas have been used in prosecuting doctors for health-care fraud and in child-abuse investigations, and they note that targets can still challenge them in court.

Bush also endorsed legislation that would add terrorism to the list of crimes for which defendants would presumptively be denied bail. Currently, to hold a suspect, prosecutors have to prove to a court that the suspect is either a danger to the community or a flight risk; the proposed change would shift the burden to defendants to prove why bail should be granted.

Bush also said he supported a bill that would increase the number of terrorism-related crimes subject to the death penalty, including attacking a national defense installation or sabotaging a nuclear facility.

The speech comes at the same time that Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft is wrapping up a national speaking tour touting the significance of the Patriot Act in the war on terror. It also follows a report earlier this year by the Justice Department's inspector general that raised questions about the Justice-supervised detention of hundreds of illegal immigrants after Sept. 11.

"As we have continued to review the laws and statutes that apply to our anti-terrorism efforts, we have recognized certain weaknesses," said Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo. "I don't think any reasonable person can argue that the tools that we have for combating drug trafficking or organized crime or health-care fraud should not be available in the fight against terrorism."

Defense lawyers and others said the department has already more than enough legal firepower, using existing immigration laws and other authority to detain people, for instance.

"It was not the lack of tools," said Joshua Dratel, a New York defense lawyer, citing a recent joint congressional report about U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence breakdowns before the Sept. 11 attacks. "It was the lack of cohesion, coherence and commitment" among government agencies and officials.

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