Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Ashcroft Seeks New Autopsy Authority

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.

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."

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."