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Six Weeks in Autumn
"What are the problems?" Dinh asked the group around the table.
For the next several hours--indeed, over the next several days--Dinh's colleagues catalogued gripes about the legal restraints on detective and intelligence work. Some of the complaints had been bouncing around the FBI and Justice Department for years.
Because of the law's peculiarities, it was unclear if investigators were allowed to track the destination and origin of e-mail the same way they could phone calls. They could obtain search warrants more easily for a telephone tape machine than for commercial voice mail services. And the amount of information that intelligence agents and criminal investigators were permitted to share was limited, making it much harder to target and jail terrorists.
All of this, the lawyers agreed, had to change. Now.
Dempsey was swamped. Reporters, other activists, congressional staffers--everyone wanted his take on how far the Justice Department and Congress would go in reaction to the attacks. "We were getting 50 calls a day," he recalls.
Like many attuned to the rhythms of Washington, Dempsey knew Congress would not have the will to resist granting dramatic new powers to law enforcement immediately. It was a classic dynamic. Something terrible happens. Legislators rush to respond. They don't have time to investigate the policy implications thoroughly, so they reach for what's available and push it through.
That was a nightmare for Dempsey. Looking for signs of hope that the legislative process could be slowed, even if it could not be stopped, he made his own calls around town.
He didn't find much support, even among longtime allies. "If you could get their attention," Dempsey says, "some members of the House and Senate were, 'Don't bother me with the details.' "
"A crisis mentality emerges, and there was clearly a crisis . . . The push for action, the appearance of action, becomes so great."
Within days of the attack, a handful of lawmakers took to the Senate floor with legislation that had been proposed and shot down in recent years because of civil liberties concerns. Many of the proposals had originally had nothing to do with terrorism.
One bill, called the Combating Terrorism Act, proposed expanding the government's authority to trace telephone calls to include e-mail. It was a legacy of FBI efforts to expand surveillance powers during the Clinton administration, which had supported a variety of technology-oriented proposals opposed by civil libertarians. Now it was hauled out and
approved in minutes.