President Bush signed legislation Friday dramatically expanding the ability of federal officials to tap telephonesand email traffic, and to detain and deport immigrants in the name of the so-called war on terrorism. Bush’s signingof the bill garnered little newspaper coverage over the weekend, and almost none on the major networks, even as civilliberties advocates warned that some of our most basic freedoms were being put at risk.
The bill, known as the USA Patriot Act, gives federal authorities unprecedented latitude in monitoring privatecommunications and expands the way such data is shared among federal agencies. The House of Representatives passedthe bill overwhelmingly on Wednesday, and the Senate on Thursday approved the measure 98-1. Russell Feingold ofWisconsin cast the only dissenting vote. Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed immediately to begin using his newpowers.
“If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you,” he told a conference of mayors. He pledged thatcriminal suspects who commit the most minor of infractions will be “put in jail and be kept in custody as long aspossible.”
Federal officials have arrested and detained nearly 1,000 people since Sept. 11, nearly all of them immigrants andpeople of Middle Eastern dissent. Most have been held on no evidence and with little or no access to lawyers. Andthis, privacy and civil liberties advocates caution, could be just the beginning.