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Ashcroft seeks new autopsy authority

By MARK BENJAMIN

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Attorney General John Ashcroft may use proposed changes to the USA Patriot Act to ask Congress for new authority to conduct autopsies on U.S. victims of terrorist attacks.

The Justice Department has quietly drafted proposed changes to the October 2001 USA Patriot Act that the department says are designed to improve the government's authority to battle terrorism at home. Critics have said the draft proposal, first obtained by The Center for Public Integrity last week, would further limit public access to information, expand spy powers and hurt civil liberties.

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But tucked inside the 87-pages of revisions is new authority for the Justice Department to authorize autopsies to learn more about terrorist perpetrators.

"Autopsies of the victims of terrorist attacks and other deadly crimes, as well as other persons, can be an effective way of obtaining information about the perpetrators," according to the recommendations drafted by the Justice Department Office of Legislative Affairs. "In addition to revealing the cause of death, autopsies sometimes enable law enforcement to retrieve forensic evidence (such as bomb fragments) from the deceased body."

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The department suggests that Congress, "create federal authority, in the attorney general, to conduct autopsies when necessary or appropriate in the conduct of federal criminal investigations. This authority is not limited and may be delegated to others."

The primary need for the new authority comes in cases outside the United States, according to the Justice Department. The draft also says the department will not hire new armies of forensic pathologists to handle the next terrorist attack, but rather "the autopsies will be performed by local coroners, private forensic investigators, or the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and his staff."

Authority to conduct autopsies is shared among a patchwork of state medical examiners, local medical examiners and county coroners while the federal government's autopsy authority is currently restricted to a handful of cases, such as U.S. military personnel and plane crash victims, according to Dr. Michael Bell, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. If passed into law, the new provisions would allow the federal government to conduct autopsies in the wake of a terrorist attack without worrying about state or local jurisdiction.

"They (the federal government) are just trying to establish their authority," Bell said.

Authority to conduct autopsies can conflict with religion. While Jewish law generally prohibits autopsies, there are a variety of circumstances -- such as when an autopsy could help save lives -- where they are permitted, said Nathan Diament, director of public policy at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations. He said state and local governments have generally been sensitive to religious concerns about autopsies and the federal government will need to as well.

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"We will have to make sure they (the federal government) are aware of the issues that state and local governments have been dealing with for some time," said Diament.

Civil libertarians are less concerned about the federal government seizing U.S. citizens' bodies after their deaths than with the federal government seizing parts of their bodies while they are alive, said American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Tim Edgar. Section 302 of the Justice Department proposal would allow the federal government to obtain DNA samples from any "suspected terrorists" and build a DNA database. Currently, the federal government can only obtain DNA samples with a search warrant or from people convicted of serious crimes.

The new proposal "allows for the taking of blood or any (DNA sample) without any conviction of a crime and without a court order," Edgar said.

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