The U.S. Congress is close to giving President George W. Bush the legislation that he has asked for to fight terrorism. Some observers say the measure, passed by the House of Representatives today and expected to come to a Senate vote as early as this afternoon, gives too much power to law-enforcement officials in a country that cherishes its civil liberties. Others say these concerns are exaggerated.
Washington, 24 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Congress is nearing completion of a package of bills that would give the federal government more power to fight terrorism.
Two weeks after the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, President George W. Bush sent his attorney general, John Ashcroft, to Capitol Hill to urge the judiciary committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives to act quickly on a series of bills to grant new powers to law enforcement.
On 25 September, he told the Senate committee that time is of the essence because his Justice Department must now use what he called obsolete tools to fight crime being committed by people equipped with the latest technology: "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 Every day that passes, every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage.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."
Four weeks later, laws addressing just such technology are nearing passage in Congress. The legislation deals with financial crimes, like money laundering, that often are committed by terrorists to hide evidence of their other activities.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the remaining legislation would expand law-enforcement officials' power to eavesdrop on suspects' exchanges on any phone, cellular phone, or even over the Internet. Such powers were proposed in 1994 by the administration of President Bill Clinton, but Congress rejected the idea, saying it would give the federal government too much power.
Some observers say the House's acceptance of the legislation after four weeks of stalling is attributable to the presence of anthrax on Capitol Hill. Only one letter to a member of Congress has been found to be infected with the disease, but dozens of people have been exposed to it, and at least two Washington postal workers have died from anthrax. These workers were employed in a facility that handles mail for Congress.
Roger Pilon is the director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington policy center. He told RFE/RL that Congress is acting in too much haste, and therefore giving an important moral victory to terrorists: "This is the kind of thing that we're seeing going on right now under this emotional strain that we're all under, namely, we forget the basic principles. And the tragedy is that this is an example of the terrorists winning."
Bradley Jansen agrees. He is the deputy director of the Free Congress Foundation of the Center for Technology Policy, a Washington-based group that advocates minimal government interference in electronic communications, like the telephone and e-mail.
Jansen told RFE/RL that a basic principle of U.S. law is that of probable cause and due process. Under these legal tenets, a person cannot even be stopped, let alone charged, unless law-enforcement officers can convince a judge that they had good reason to believe he committed a crime. In addition, the entire criminal justice system must adhere strictly to well-defined procedures to ensure that the defendant receives a fair trial: "We are also concerned that law enforcement follow due process with probable cause because it is only after we give up these protections and our constitutional rights and the American way of life that the terrorists will have won."
But not all observers find these laws sinister. One is Tyler Anbinder, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington. He says that previously, there have been very few bad laws passed in times of war. Anbinder told RFE/RL that abuses of Americans' civil liberties during previous wars were the fault of police and bad judges, not the laws themselves: "Generally the laws haven't been the problem. The problem is overzealous enforcement officials who overstep the bounds of those laws in the name of national security. Usually the laws in such cases are drawn up with both safeguards in them and assumptions that judicial authorities will use their [good] judgment in issuing the various warrants and so forth."
Another proposal of concern to civil libertarians is issuing national identification cards to all U.S. citizens. As of now, many Americans' wallets are filled with credit cards, drivers' licenses, and other such forms of identification. But none is issued by the federal government as a means of formally establishing a citizen's identity.
Civil libertarians want to keep it that way. According to Jansen, a national identification card would be unconstitutional because it would provide law-enforcement officials opportunities to harass people without probable cause. As it is, no police officer can stop anyone on the street to demand his identity papers: "The idea that we have an obligation to tell the state who we are at all times for no other reason than that the state thinks they have the right to that knowledge, I think, goes against the ideas of the founding fathers, ignores the fact that we have a federalist system."
America's federalist system cedes some power to a central government, but it also ensures that each of America's 50 states is sovereign.
Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, says he is not certain that a national identity card would be unconstitutional. In fact, he said, such a system could be helpful in maintaining order without encroaching on Americans' civil liberties.
But Sabato adds that the cards also create new problems, without necessarily addressing the current U.S. concern about keeping track of terrorists.
"I don't know that it would solve the problem. And the problem in part is one of immigration and a lack of control of our borders, and also a lack of control once people enter the country. We don't know where they are, what they're doing, and we don't follow them up once their visas have expired. That's what's really got to change."
Americans concerned for their civil liberties have little to worry about on this front for the time being, however. There is no legislation pending in Congress to institute a national identity card, and there are no plans to draw up such a bill.