President Bush signed legislation Friday dramatically expanding the ability of federal officials to tap telephones and email traffic, and to detain and deport immigrants in the name of the so-called war on terrorism. Bush’s signing 2001-of the bill garnered little newspaper coverage over the weekend, and almost none on the major networks, even as civil liberties 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 private communications and expands the way such data is shared among federal agencies. The House of Representatives passed the bill overwhelmingly on Wednesday, and the Senate on Thursday approved the measure 98-1. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin cast the only dissenting vote. Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed immediately to begin using his new powers.
“If you overstay your visas even by one day, we will arrest you,” he told a conference of mayors. He pledged that criminal suspects who commit the most minor of infractions will be “put in jail and be kept in custody as long as possible.”
Federal officials have arrested and detained nearly 1,000 people since Sept. 11, nearly all of them immigrants and people of Middle Eastern dissent. Most have been held on no evidence and with little or no access to lawyers. And this, privacy and civil liberties advocates caution, could be just the beginning.