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Ashcroft Relenting on Terrorism Bill

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After facing a second day of questions from skeptical legislators, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft signaled Tuesday that he would be willing to give ground on two controversial provisions in a White House anti-terrorism bill.

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ashcroft offered to alter language that would have granted the attorney general broad powers to detain foreign nationals and employ electronic surveillance--provisions that many legislators say threaten to trample civil liberties.

But even with these concessions from Ashcroft, committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) made it clear that the anti-terrorism legislation would face significant further scrutiny and could take several weeks to clear Congress.

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“We’ve made some progress,” Leahy said. “I think we can make more.”

The prospect of delay represents a significant setback for the White House, which has been pushing for swift passage of the legislation. Vice President Dick Cheney renewed that call during a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday, urging members to push for a vote on the bill by the end of next week, sources said.

To meet that deadline, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said it might be necessary to split the bill into pieces, setting aside the more controversial elements.

But it’s not clear that Republicans can even agree on whether to splinter the anti-terrorism package. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said that he opposes doing so.

Ashcroft has made two trips to the Capitol this week to defend the counter-terrorism package, which the White House has been assembling since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On Monday, he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee, where many members expressed similar concerns with the provisions on detention of foreign nationals and expansion of electronic surveillance.

Faced with this opposition, Ashcroft showed new flexibility Tuesday, particularly on a section of the bill that many in Congress said would give the attorney general far too much latitude to detain foreign nationals with little or no judicial review.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others have criticized that section, saying it would permit authorities to jail foreign nationals indefinitely--even if they are in the country legally--based solely on the attorney general’s assertion that they pose a terrorist threat.

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But that is not the intent of the bill, Ashcroft said. Rather, he said, the language is meant to allow authorities to detain individuals only when they are already in violation of immigration law and subject to deportation.

“I’m not interested . . . in this becoming a means of holding people who otherwise should not be held,” Ashcroft said, adding that the Justice Department would work with the committee to clarify that point in subsequent drafts of the bill.

Ashcroft also proposed a compromise on a provision of the bill that would ease guidelines for authorities seeking permission to place a terrorist suspect under electronic surveillance.

But even with Ashcroft’s offer of compromise, some legislators said the new wiretapping provisions would still go too far. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) raised questions about expanding authorities’ ability to snoop on e-mail and other computer communications.

Ashcroft said that unless investigators have court permission, they only comb the first few lines for the addresses of the sender and the recipient.

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