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Tuesday, September 18, 2001

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FBI asks Congress to ease wiretapping laws

By Sridhar Krishnaswami

WASHINGTON, SEPT. 17. Even as the Bush administration says that time is running out for Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan, there appears to be a sudden rush to tighten the laws to come to terms with terrorists.

The administration has hinted that the domestic law against assassination of foreign leaders by the Central Intelligence Agency may be evaluated in the broader context of the efforts against terrorism. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is asking Congress to ease the domestic wiretapping laws that will assist law enforcement authorities to hunt down confirmed and suspected terrorists in this country. The FBI fears that there could still be terrorists hiding in the country and hence the urgent necessity for sharper tools.

The Attorney-General, Mr. John Ashcroft and the FBI chief, Mr. Robert Mueller, have appealed to Capitol Hill to come up with legislation this week. In Mr. Ashcroft's opinion, law enforcement authorities have better tools going after organised gambling than terrorists. ``We need to upgrade,'' the Attorney- General insisted. The Justice department and the FBI point out that under current laws, mere suspicion of terrorist activities does not warrant a legal reason for wiretap; and that the authorisation should be focussed on the person rather than on the telephone equipment he or she uses. According to Mr. Ashcroft with the advent of disposable phones, ``it simply doesn't make sense to have the surveillance authority associated with the hardware''.

The administration is not merely interested in giving enforcement agencies sharper tools to fight terrorists but on the laws associated with terrorism. The Justice Department is working on a crucial area: dealing with those convicted of harbouring terrorists. Under the present scheme of things, people who harbour terrorists face up to five years in prison. The Attorney- General has suggested that this should be raised to the same level of punishment for espionage - in certain cases, the death penalty could be given upon conviction.

Top lawmakers in this country, who have been routinely briefed by both the FBI and the CIA on the status of the investigations, are also inclined to drafting new laws to tighten surveillance and enforcement. ``We need to modernise our laws to make sure that no stone goes unturned in this investigation,'' remarked Senator Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Bush administration is seeking to bring into law that will warrant a legal wiretap on a broad set of equipment used by terrorists. The traditional attention on a land line telephone is no longer sufficient in the war against terrorism and steps are being taken to identify the different types of telephones, computers and other communication devices that are being used in terrorist acts.

The administration's efforts to broaden law enforcement tools in the wake of last Tuesday's horrific terrorist attacks on New York and Washington coincide with two more arrests by investigating agencies. Authorities say that the arrests are necessary to keep witnesses in custody.

The Justice Department has said a federal grand jury is working on warrants for material witnesses. Details have not been disclosed because of the grand jury secrecy rules.

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