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U.S.: Congress Resists Pressure On Antiterror Laws

  • Andrew Tully

U.S. President George W. Bush is proposing legislation that he says would protect Americans from further attacks by international terrorists. But some members of Congress say these bills might restrict civil liberties, and they want to study the measures carefully before voting on them.

Washington, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress is resisting efforts by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to move quickly to pass new or revised laws that would give American law enforcement agencies broader powers to fight terrorism.

In congressional testimony on 24 September before the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee, Attorney General John Ashcroft referred to the deadly 11 September terror attacks in New York and Washington when he said the American people cannot afford the luxury to debate these proposals for days and perhaps weeks.

And on 25 September, Ashcroft -- a former senator -- made the same appeal before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Technology has dramatically outpaced our statutes. As the chairman mentioned, law-enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephones, not e-mail or the Internet or mobile communications and voice mail. Every day that passes, every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage. Until Congress makes those changes, we are fighting an unnecessarily uphill battle."

The package of proposals would expand the authority of law enforcement officials to listen to the telephone conversations of suspected terrorists, would make it easier to track suspects, and would permit courts to use information gathered by foreign governments even if it were obtained by methods that are unconstitutional in the United States.

In his appearances before both the House and the Senate, Ashcroft did not get what he and his president want: quick passage of the antiterrorism legislation. Members of Congress from both parties expressed concern that some elements of the proposals could erode American's valued civil liberties.

In his 24 September testimony, Ashcroft reminded House members that the proposed legislation was drawn up in consultation with members of Congress.

"The antiterrorism proposals that have been submitted by the administration and, very frankly, informed by and shaped by collaboration with members of this committee and other members of the Congress, represent careful, balanced, in many cases long-overdue improvements to our capacity to combat terrorism. It is not a wish list."

But Representative James Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the house committee, agreed with members of his panel who urged more deliberation. He said the committee would not take up the legislation formally until 2 October. The Senate Judiciary Committee did the same.

The issue of enhancing law-enforcement powers at the possible expense of civil liberties is sensitive in America. As the nation considers how to prevent a recurrence of the 11 September attacks, civil libertarians have been urging caution.

Yesterday, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an independent policy center in Washington, held a seminar in the midst of the debate in Congress.

One participant, Jerry Berman, the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, expressed much sympathy with the Bush administration's proposed legislation. In fact, he said he believes it is, for the most part, free of restrictions on liberties.

"And there are bills on the [Capitol] Hill, moving through the Congress, where 80 percent of the things that are being recommended are sound, they've been discussed for many years."

Berman, whose group espouses free use of the Internet, indicated that he is less concerned about the content of the proposals than he is about the speed with which the Bush administration wants to have it enacted. In discussing this haste, he wryly used a military term -- "collateral damage" -- which refers to the deaths of people and destruction of property that were not intended by an attacker.

In Berman's example, however, the victim is the U.S. Constitution.

"We want to solve our national security crisis, but we do not want to have a great deal of collateral damage to our constitution."

According to Berman, Congress has previously acted in haste when trying to respond to a crisis. One example he cited has been used often since the 11 September attacks: Pearl Harbor.

After the surprise attack on the Hawaiian navy base in 1941, Americans were outraged at the bloodshed and astounded at the country's vulnerability -- just as they are today. Berman recommended that Congress not act too hastily now, as it did then, when it agreed to allow Japanese-Americans to be herded into internment camps.

"And the history of our country is that every time we act very quickly to resolve these issues, we have come to rue the day that we've done it."

One element of the proposed antiterrorism legislation that Berman finds worrisome is that it would give law-enforcement officials broader power to eavesdrop on telephone communications with less judicial oversight. Now, police or FBI agents must get a judge's permission every time they want to put a wiretap on a telephone.

Berman reminded the Carnegie seminar about the scope of existing legislation, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was enacted in 1978 at a time when American citizens faced increased terrorist attacks around the world. He said it, too, expanded law enforcement powers to fight terrorism, but he said these powers were tempered with judicial oversight.

And according to Berman, judicial oversight is not a great impediment on law enforcement. He noted that in the more than 22 years since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was enacted, only once has a judge declined to approve a wiretap.

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