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Bush seeks 3 new laws on terror

Focuses on bail, search powers, death penalty

WASHINGTON -- President Bush pushed Congress yesterday to pass three new laws to combat terrorism, seizing on the second anniversary of the nation's worst terrorist attacks to declare that federal agents need more power to reduce the country's vulnerability to future attacks.

Speaking to Homeland Security and law enforcement officials at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., Bush promised never to forget the tragedies and urged Congress to approve legislation that would expand the federal death penalty to include more people convicted of certain terrorist acts, allow investigators trying to prevent attacks to use subpoenas issued without the approval of a judge or a grand jury, and automatically deny bail to defendants charged with some terrorism-related crimes.

"The House and the Senate have a responsibility to act quickly on these matters, untie the hands of our law enforcement officials so they can fight and win the war against terror," Bush said.

The White House distributed a 23-page "progress report on the global war on terrorism" as Bush was giving his speech. The report proudly points out that two-thirds of Al Qaeda's leadership has been killed or captured over the past two years.

But even as Bush spoke, television stations were airing a videotape showing two bearded men who appeared to be Osama bin Laden and a top deputy walking down a hillside at an unknown location. The tape, not yet analyzed by US intelligence experts, promised more attacks on Americans.

Bush made no mention of the tape, but he linked efforts to protect the United States from attack to the campaign being carried out by soldiers abroad.

"For two years, this nation has been on the offensive against global terror networks overseas and at home," Bush said.

In pushing for new antiterrorist laws, Bush backed calls made by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who has argued that the passage of the USA Patriot Act, a collection of laws increasing the investigative powers of government agents, still does not give the government the same authority to investigate terrorists that is used in organized-crime cases. However, Ashcroft has said that the USA Patriot Act has been an important weapon, and he has been touring the country to highlight its benefits.

Recently, both Ashcroft and the USA Patriot Act have been prime targets of opponents of the administration, who contend that the attorney general has used the law to circumvent civil liberties. Several Democrats running for president, the American Civil Liberties Union, and some civil rights groups have criticized the law.

Yesterday, even past supporters of the USA Patriot Act such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy said Congress should look at the larger picture before expanding the powers of federal agents. All the antiterrorist provisions Bush called for yesterday have been proposed in separate pieces of legislation but have received little attention in Congress.

"All too often, this administration has sought to undermine the checks and balances established by the Constitution by bypassing the courts and stripping judges of their authority to make appropriate decisions in criminal cases," said Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee. "Before the independence of our judiciary is further undermined, the administration must show why our current laws on subpoenas and bail are inadequate."

Bush said that allowing terrorist suspects to be released on bail is dangerous. "Today, people charged with certain crimes, including drug offenses, are not eligible for bail," he said. "But terrorist-related crimes are not on that list. Suspected terrorists could be released, free to leave the country, or worse, before the trial."

Timothy Lynch, director of the Project on Criminal Justice at the Cato Institute, a civil liberties group in Washington, D.C., said he was particularly disturbed by the administration's call for broader subpoena power. He said that longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly asked Congress to give his agents subpoena power and was rebuffed.

"I see this as an end run around the Fourth Amendment," Lynch said. "These administrative warrants cut the judge and the judiciary out of the picture. It basically empowers field agents to demand papers and materials right there on the spot."

Bush said that law enforcement officials should be able to issue subpoenas in terrorism cases, just as they can when they are investigating cases of medical fraud. "If we can use these subpoenas to catch crooked doctors, the Congress should allow law enforcement officials to use them in catching terrorists," the president said.

Legal specialists also focused on the death-penalty proposal, which would apply to those accused of sabotaging a nuclear power plant or defense installation, saying that it could mean that people who have some role in a terrorist attack but don't themselves kill anyone can be put to death as murderers.

Under existing federal law, the death penalty usually only applies to someone convicted of having an immediate role in a murder. What the president is seeking, specialists said, is to extend capital punishment to situations in which death is a consequence of a terrorist act, but not an immediate result, for example, cases in which victims die of radiation poisoning after a nuclear plant is hit.

The Bush administration is trying out the basic theory behind this proposal in the case of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only individual charged with a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Prosecutors are arguing that even though he did not fly any of the planes into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon he is eligible for the death penalty because he aided others and because their efforts led to deaths.

Even opponents of the death penalty believe that the president may win the new authority despite growing opposition to it in the country. "When terrorists are involved, some of the reticence [to pass new death penalty laws] melts away," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

But since Congress overwhelmingly approved the USA Patriot Act in the weeks after the attacks, some members have expressed deepening concerns about civil liberties.

Representative Louise McIntosh Slaughter, Democrat of New York, was quoted in June as saying that: "I think we all voted for the first Patriot Act because we were in some kind of shock. But having given it some thought and seeing what's happened, people being held in detention without benefit of an attorney. . . . It really has made us feel rather shaky."

Added Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who is running for president: "All over America, I hear deep concerns about the Bush administration abusing the USA Patriot Act and other powers they already have."

Globe correspondent Lyle Denniston contributed to this report.

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