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Six Weeks in Autumn

The White House, the Justice Department and their allies in Congress wanted to ease those restraints, and they wanted to do it as quickly as possible. Though put into place to protect individuals and political groups from past abuses by the FBI, CIA and others, the restrictions were partly to blame for the intelligence gaps on September 11, the government said.

The administration also wanted new authority to secretly detain individuals suspected of terrorism and to enlist banks and other financial services companies in the search for terrorist financing. What's more, law enforcement sought broad access to business databases filled with information about the lives of ordinary citizens. All this detail could help investigators search for links among plotters.

Dempsey and other civil libertarians agreed that the existing laws were outdated, but for precisely the opposite reason--because they already gave the government access to mountains of information unavailable a decade ago. Handing investigators even more power, they warned, would lead to privacy invasions and abuses.

By the time the debate ended--one year ago, with overwhelming approval of the USA Patriot Act by Congress, and its signing on October 26 by President Bush--the government had powers that went far beyond what even the most ardent law enforcement supporters had considered politically possible before the attacks.

How this happened--through backroom negotiations, political maneuvering and public pressure by Bush administration officials--is a largely untold tale with consequences that will reverberate for years to come.

They stared at a television in the bright sunroom of Dinh's Chevy Chase home, a handful of policy specialists from the Justice Department who wondered what to do next.

Only hours before, they had fled their offices, cringing as fighter jets patrolled Washington's skies. Now, as news programs replayed the destruction, they talked about their friend Barbara Olson, conservative commentator and wife of U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson. She was aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon.

Dinh couldn't believe Barbara was gone. He'd just had dinner at the Olsons' house two nights before, and she had been in rare form. Her humor was irrepressible. Dinh passed around a book of photography she had signed and given to him and the other dinner guests, Washington, D.C.: Then and Now.

It was hard to process so much death amid so much sunshine. Dinh and his colleagues tried to focus on the work head. They agreed they faced a monumental, even historic task: a long overdue reworking of anti-terrorism laws to prevent something like this from happening again on American soil.

Their marching orders came the next morning, as they reconvened in a conference room in Dinh's suite of offices on the fourth floor of Justice. Ashcroft wasn't there--he was in hiding along with other senior government officials. Just before the meeting, Dinh had spoken to Adam Ciongoli, Ashcroft's counselor, who conveyed the attorney general's desires.

"Beginning immediately," Dinh told the half a dozen policy advisers and lawyers, "we will work on a package of authorities"--sweeping, dramatic and based on practical recommendations from FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers in the field. "The charge [from Ashcroft] was very, very clear: 'all that is necessary for law enforcement, within the bounds of the Constitution, to discharge the obligation to fight this war against terror,' " he said.

Dinh's enthusiasm for the task was evident. At 34, he seems perpetually jazzed up, smiles often and speaks quickly, as though his words, inflected with the accent of his native Vietnam, can't quite keep up with his ideas. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he learned his way around Washington as an associate special counsel to the Senate Whitewater committee, and as a special counsel to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) during the Clinton impeachment trial.

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