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Tip Of the Iceberg?

The new law enforcement powers proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft are not remarkably creative or broad. And if passed by Congress, their effectiveness won't be known for several years to come.

What is remarkable, however, is that these common-sense provisions were not in place before the terror attacks in New York and Washington. And what is important to remember is that these proposed new powers are probably only the tip of the iceberg.

The Justice Department now is urging Congress to enact new laws which will help combat terrorism in a variety of ways. For example, the feds want to be able to watch and wiretap suspects, regardless of what telephone they use, so that suspected criminals cannot simply jump from cell phone to cell phone to avoid surveillance.

This is a no-brainer and should have been so before last week. We long ago left the era when one person had a single stationary telephone in an individual residence. And law enforcement officials should have been hollering years and years ago for these sorts of powers to track increasingly sophisticated terrorists.

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Likewise, the feds are asking Congress to increase the statute of limitations period for terrorist crimes, which would allow prosecutors to go after suspected terrorists long after the crimes were committed. At first blush, this may seem like an insignificant tweaking of the law but it is potentially very important. It gives prosecutors more leeway to build their cases against terrorists and to go back at old cases and perhaps reactivate them. To the extent that time helps law enforcement ferret out these people, this new provision will make a difference.

The Justice Department also wants to trigger the application of various money-laundering laws to terrorist activity. The feds hope that these laws can be applied as effectively to these terrorist cells as they have been to organized crime organizations around the country. This may be the sleeper among the new powers proposed. Don't underestimate the power of computers and bank records to help the authorities find the bad guys here. It is virtually impossible around the world to use any sort of banking system without leaving a paper or computer trail.

Finally, the feds want to increase the penalties for people who harbor terrorists - to make the penalties as stiff as they have been for those who harbor spies. This proposal is intended to send a message that America will come down hard on the terrorists' network even for those who are not directly involved in violent acts. Again, that makes perfect sense. But why in the world wasn't such a provision already in the law before last week? Shouldn't the Oklahoma City bombing or the bombing of the USS Cole or the African embassy bombings or even the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 triggered this sort of response?

These initial moves by the federal government to react to the new paradigm of world terror are just that; initial moves. They are not partcularly controversial ones, either. Given Attorney General Ashcroft's background in the Senate, and the general tone in the air, I cannot imagine that Congress won't promptly approve this new legislation.

The real question in my mind is what comes next. These new provisions of the law almost certainly won't be enough. The Justice Department almost certainly will come back to Congress for more and more powers. More powers for surveillance. More powers to search. More powers to track business and bank records. And that's when the rubber will meet the road. That's when the civil liberties debate we've begun to hear over the past few days will begin to roar.

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