The State Department said Friday that it would slow the process for granting visas to young men from Arab and Muslim nations in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks. The move came as the Bush administration was engulfed in complaints about a separate new Justice Department antiterror policy.
The Justice Department's expansion of its powers to allow authorities to monitor all communications between some people in federal custody and their lawyers provoked an outcry from the legal profession, civil liberties groups and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
The changes in visa procedures and the authorized eavesdropping on some prisoners represented what government officials said was a fundamental shift in the policy to combat terrorism by emphasizing prevention. The government is considering additional changes and is putting in place others, some of them stemming from new antiterrorism legislation, including:
Using wiretaps authorized secretly by a special federal court to prosecute people suspected of involvement in terrorism on charges unrelated to terrorism. The wiretaps from the special court are supposed to be primarily for intelligence gathering and are more easily obtainable than wiretaps sought for criminal investigations.
Redrawing the guidelines used by prosecutors in determining when to oppose bail for people charged with relatively minor crimes. Federal prosecutors have already, in many cases, urged judges not to release people suspected of involvement in terrorism even if they are charged with a minor and unrelated crime.
Holding in New York at least 10 people as material witnesses with their arrest records sealed by court order.
The new policies involving visas and intercepting communications between terror suspects and their lawyers highlighted the vexing problem of trying to reconcile intensifying national security concerns with traditional civil liberties.
State Department officials said that beginning next week, visa applications from 26 nations from men between the ages of 16 and 45 would be checked against databases operated by the FBI.
The security procedure will take up to 20 days, officials said. The applicants also will be required to complete a detailed questionnaire on their backgrounds, which includes questions about any military service or weapons training, previous travel and whether they had ever lost a passport.
Secretary of State Colin Powell on Friday portrayed the new rules as temporary.
"Those who come to the United States, we're going to check on to make sure that we are safe," Powell said. "We want people to come to our shores, but at the same time, we have to protect ourselves. This will be a temporary measure for a number of countries."
Powell acknowledged that the change could antagonize certain Muslim nations whose support the United States seeks in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
"We are sensitive to how it will affect our friends," Powell told Fox News.
The action on visas drew immediate criticism at home, where pro-immigration groups and organizations representing Muslim-Americans said the visa requirement amounted to profiling by religion or nationality, which they said was antithetical to American values.
"This policy to me is very gray," said Angela M. Kelley, the deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant policy group. "It will catch up in its net people who mean us no harm. It sends the wrong message for a nation of immigrants."
In defending the regulations about eavesdropping on people in federal custody that were implemented on Oct. 30, senior government officials said it would help obstruct future terrorist acts. The regulation covers not only people in federal prison but also those in the custody of federal marshals and the immigration service. By monitoring all conversations between lawyers and a small group of people in federal custody, officials said they would be able to prevent terrorist acts even if the information could not be used to prosecute anyone. That is a contrast to the traditional approach of officials trying to compile evidence to be used in a courtroom.
Under the regulations, the lawyers and their clients would be informed that their telephone conversations and mail will be monitored.
Mindy Tucker, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said that the new regulations would affect only a small group of people, those who have been designated as requiring special treatment. She said that, so far, 13 people in federal custody have been affected, and none are those arrested since Sept. 11.
In an interview Friday night with Larry King on CNN, Attorney General John Ashcroft said that the new guidelines have been misinterpreted by critics.
"Just imagine this: You have a terrorist who has _ as a matter of fact, of the 13, some are terrorists _ that has an incompleted task and is waiting to signal those colleagues of his on the outside of a time to complete the task, to finish what the terrorists endeavor. We think we ought to be able to try and detect that and prevent that ongoing terrorism," Ashcroft said.
He said that the regulations provide that the officials listening in on communications will not be able to pass any information on to prosecutors and none of the information could be used without permission of a judge.
Government officials said that among those whose communications with lawyers have been monitored are people like Omar Abdul Rahman, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Leahy said he was "deeply troubled by what appears to be an executive effort to exercise new powers without judicial scrutiny or statutory authorization." He also said, "These are difficult times. Trial by fire can refine us but it can also coarsen us." The administration should devise ways to fight terrorism without losing "the freedoms that we are fighting to protect," he said.
Robert E. Hirshon, the president of the American Bar Association, said that the new eavesdropping regulations violate the Constitution's guarantees of the right to counsel and to be free of unreasonable searches.
The attorney-client privilege dates back to the reign of Elizabeth I in England, and Hirshon said "no privilege is more indelibly ensconced in the American legal system than this privilege."
Traditionally, prosecutors may ask judges to wiretap lawyer-client conversations if they can demonstrate probable cause that the lawyer is being used to carry on a criminal enterprise.
The rule about attorney-client conversations was published Oct. 31 in the Federal Register and says the monitoring can take place when the attorney general concludes there is "reasonable suspicion" that the communications are designed to further terrorist acts. The rule went into effect the day before it became public.
On the visa policy, even advocates of tighter immigration controls expressed discomfort with the approach.
Steven Camarota, the research director of the Center for Immigration Reform in Washington, said the United States should scrutinize all visa applicants equally and not just focus on Muslim men. Technological advances should allow for all visa applicants to be fingerprinted and checked by the FBI, he said.
"There should be a consensus in the United States that we don't want an ethnic- or religious-based immigration system," Camarota said.
Countries affected by the new visa restriction are Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.