House panel approves antiterrorism bill

ITworld.com |  Business

The Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted 36-0 to send sweeping antiterrorism legislation to the House floor.

The drafted legislation, known as the Patriot (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, would expand the government's ability to monitor communications, including e-mail and cell phone conversations, and share that information among agencies. Committee members said Wednesday they expect it to draw broad bipartisan backing in the full House.

The bill underwent last-minute amendments and debate for more than five hours Wednesday, pausing only for a 30-minute break as top committee members attended a closed meeting with government officials about the bill.

The bill now will proceed to the full House and is scheduled to go up for a vote by the end of the week, according to F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the committee.

"Today we meet with one purpose in mind: to provide law enforcement agencies with the appropriate tools to prevent" this kind of terrorism from ever happening again, Sensenbrenner said during the committee debate. "(This bill) will give law enforcement new weapons to fight a new kind of war."

Some of those new tools include allowing law enforcement to wiretap a variety of communications, from electronic communications to voice mail, without the need for multiple court orders, and allowing a court order to extend beyond the jurisdiction in which it was granted. It also allows law enforcers to track suspected terrorists as they navigate the Internet.

The bill passed on by the committee Wednesday is the House version of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft on Sept. 24. [See, "Ashcroft briefs House on antiterrorism bill," Sept. 24.] It has gained bipartisan backing after lawmakers toned down some of Ashcroft's more controversial proposals. The Senate Judiciary is currently drafting its own version of the ATA.

Changes in the House bill include an expiration date, or "sunset," added to a number of provisions in the Patriot Act so that they would expire on Dec. 31, 2003. The revised House bill also limits to seven days the amount of time the government can detain non-U.S. citizens who are suspected as a security risk. Ashcroft had asked for an unlimited power of detention.

"As much as I want to help Attorney General John Ashcroft do his job, it would be irresponsible to give him a blank check," said John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan.

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