President George W. Bush on Friday signed into law an antiterrorism measure designed to heighten national security and to temporarily give U.S. law enforcement officials and investigators more provisions for tracking down and detaining suspected terrorists.
Called the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001, the legislation expands investigators’ surveillance options and increases information sharing among government organizations related to terrorist threats; beefs up patrols along the U.S.-Canadian border; establishes a counter-terrorism fund; implements measures to prevent money laundering and other means of financing terrorism; and strengthens criminal laws against terrorism.
“We’re dealing with terrorists who operate by highly sophisticated methods and technologies, some of which were not even available when our existing laws were written,” said President Bush in prepared remarks made during the signing ceremony. “The bill before me takes account of the new realities and dangers posed by modern terrorists. It will help law enforcement to identify, to dismantle, to disrupt, and to punish terrorists before they strike.”
The law, in name and in content, is a combination of bills proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Leaders of the two chambers last week negotiated a compromise to their separate bills, which they had already passed, in hopes of turning the proposals into law as quickly as possible. The House passed the rewritten bill on Wednesday, and the Senate followed suit on Thursday.
Yet the USA PATRIOT Act took longer to achieve than the Bush administration had hoped. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft urged a House committee on Sept. 24 – just 13 days after hijackers crashed planes into New York City’s World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon – to quickly modify legislation related to surveillance, detention, and other law enforcement areas so as to prevent future attacks on U.S. soil. But some members of Congress, which had acted speedily just days after the attacks in passing legislation to funnel emergency appropriations into recovery efforts, insisted that these issues be thoroughly debated and understood before bills were put to a vote.
At stake – some lawmakers maintained – are American civil liberties because Ashcroft’s proposal asked for measures such as detaining aliens suspected of terrorist activity for extended periods of time, allowing multiple government agencies to share information about suspects, and expanding legal methods of wiretapping and other surveillance activities, the implications of such actions had to be considered, they said.
As a result, Congress placed a four-year “sunset” clause, or expiration date, on many of the act’s more controversial allowances. Still, civil liberty groups and privacy advocates say that the USA PATRIOT Act violates some basic freedoms.
“This bill goes light years beyond what is necessary to combat terrorism,” said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington national office, in a written statement issued Thursday in response to Senate’s passing of the bill. “Included in the bill are provisions that would allow for the mistreatment of immigrants, the suppression of dissent, and the investigation and surveillance of wholly innocent Americans.”
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