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Civil liberty and privacy groups fear increase of police powers

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WASHINGTON — Advocates of privacy and civil liberties cite the internment of Japanese Americans 50 years ago as a reminder to Congress to move cautiously when considering an increase of police powers after the terrorist attacks.

Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Congress to beef up the FBI's powers after the attacks.

Critics say the internment of Japanese Americans after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor offer a reminder of the hazards of efforts to increase police powers.

"I think it's an apt analogy in terms of the potential for an immediate overreaction that is likely to be regretted," said David Sobel of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Both conservative and liberal advocacy groups fear the Bush administration wants Congress to immediately strengthen the government's law enforcement powers — including increasing electronic surveillance and expanding wiretap authority — without any hearings in the House or Senate.

The Senate already authorized changes in the nation's wiretapping laws late last Thursday night without holding committee hearings, they point out.

And Ashcroft has suggested publicly he wants legislation before Friday, even though lawmakers had only seen a vague outline of the exact text of the legislation by Tuesday and won't have a voting session again until Thursday.

"If he wants this done by the end of the week, that clearly means that it's going to be brought directly to the floor of both houses, without benefit of hearings by the respective Judiciary committees, and that is just a terrible way to amend our legal system," Sobel said.

No one's against law enforcement tracking down the terrorists who helped plan the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, said J. Bradley Jansen, deputy director of the Center for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

"No one in the privacy community wants to stop law enforcement from getting the information that they need," Jansen said. "We're just concerned that they do so following due process and the protections that our Constitution provides us."

If Congress feels the need to pass additional anti-terrorism measures immediately, put an expiration date on the law and then hold hearings on whether they are needed later on, Sobel suggested

"What law enforcement wants and what law enforcement needs are two different things," Jansen said.

Lawmakers in both chambers slowly are coming out for more consideration of the civil liberty and privacy implications before Congress considers the attorney general's proposal.

"It would be entirely inappropriate to move such an important legislative initiative without serious deliberation," said Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga. "Let us not rush into a vast expansion of government power in a misguided attempt to protect freedom. In doing so, we will erode the very freedoms we seek to protect."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., agreed. "The last thing we want is to pass ill-considered laws that could undermine the investigation now under way or lead to the release of suspects," Leahy said. "The military would not rush into military action knowing they could make mistakes and we won't rush and make mistakes in the legal war against terrorism."

A coalition of privacy groups and civil liberties groups plans to issue a joint letter on Thursday, calling for Congress to carefully consider the implications of any changes in the law.