Enhanced Law Enforcement Powers Weighed. (Dateline Washington)

Article excerpt

The age-old question of how a democracy balances national security with individual liberty was an important topic of concern along Pennsylvania Avenue last month, as the Bush Administration proposed legislation to help federal law enforcement agencies detect and thwart future terrorist plots. At press time, both the House Committee on the Judiciary and the full Senate had approved a version of the antiterrorism legislation.

Both bills contain proposals that alter the rules of evidence-gathering by which investigators must abide. Other proposals would ease the procedural requirements for coordinating investigations across mutiple political or bureaucratic jurisdictions, allowing investigators to track suspected terrorists better.

The bills, for example, contain provisions adapting current surveillance authorities to the Internet. Current law allows investigators, with a court order, to install tracing devices that locate the origin of incoming calls and the destination of outgoing calls. Both bills extend that authority to the Internet, allowing investigators, with a court order, to perform routing and addressing checks on Internet transactions and e-mail messages. As before, federal agents will still be forbidden to capture or record the content of communications without a warrant.

Each of the bills also allows for a single court order to apply to traces in multiple jurisdictions, allowing investigators to respond much more quickly to the movements of suspected terrorists. Authorities say the requirement for multiple court orders is a significant hurdle in keeping up with terrorist movements.

Currently, a court order is required for investigators to get personal information--such as a suspect's name, billing address and length of time as a customer--from Internet service providers and phone companies. The bills make such information, as well as credit card numbers, accessible with a subpoena that can be used nationwide. The proposals also permit Internet service providers to volunteer information to authorities when they think that divulging e-mail messages, customer information, and login records will prevent injury or death.

Also harmonizing current authorities with new technologies is a provision in each bill granting investigators the authority to seize the content of voice-mail messages with a warrant.

Both versions of the legislation also accommodate for the Administration's "roving wiretap" request which allows federal investigators to seek a court order to track all telephone conversations by an individual, not just those occurring on a particular phone. …