Civil Liberties and Congress

Congress has wisely taken some time to study and alter the antiterrorism legislation urged by Attorney General John Ashcroft. The measure appears to be headed for approval next week, missing several deadlines set earlier by Mr. Ashcroft, but in plenty of time, certainly, to aid in his investigations.

These proposals have weighty constitutional implications. Compromises were made to curb possible abuses of federal power, but the attorney general will still get some needed extra powers.

Consider, for instance, increased phone-tapping authority. Both Senate and House will allow the Justice Department to apply to a single judge for a "roving" tap that would remain in effect as a suspect moved around. This makes sense, given today's mobile phones and mobile people.

They're also likely to grant greater surveillance of e-mail, though the Senate would allow only the monitoring of addresses, not content, without formal court approval.

On the detention of foreign nationals, both houses rejected unlimited detention without formal charges. They'd limit the detention to a week.

These are reassuring compromises, made quickly for the crisis. Congress should also make sure these measures end when the crisis is over.

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