Antiterrorism bills may come to vote soon
By Manuel Perez-Rivas
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's antiterrorism proposals are making progress in Congress after being slowed because of concerns from lawmakers and civil liberties groups that the measures would threaten constitutional rights.
The House Judiciary Committee has approved its version, and Senate negotiators have reached agreement with the White House on a somewhat different set of proposals. The bills could come to a vote in both chambers next week.
If approved in their current forms, the two bills would have to be reconciled because of differences between them.
A key difference is a sunset clause in the House version that would cause the enhanced powers given to investigators to expire on December 31, 2003. The White House opposes that provision.
"No one can guarantee that terrorism will sunset in two years," Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference Thursday.
"Our president has wisely counseled us as Americans that this is a long struggle. He has cautioned us to understand that we must be perseverant and that we must in fact be expecting to stay after this objective until we complete our responsibility and tasks."
Ashcroft has stepped up his pressure on Congress in recent days to adopt the anti-terrorism package, calling it a necessary tool for law enforcement to be able to prevent terrorist acts in the future.
Although he said Thursday he was pleased and gratified by the progress on Capitol Hill, he continued pushing to further strengthen the legislation.
Stronger tools for law enforcement
The counterterrorism package was proposed by the White House in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
It soon drew complaints from civil liberties groups and from Democratic and Republican legislators concerned that it infringed on constitutional rights. The White House defends the proposals as necessary tools in the war against terrorists.
Among the measures to draw the greatest scrutiny are those expanding the power of the federal government to detain immigrants on the mere suspicion that they might be involved in terrorist activities.
Other controversial provisions include proposals to expand investigators' abilities to wiretap telephones and monitor Internet communications. Another would ease restrictions on the secrecy of grand jury testimony.
Some of the proposals have been scaled back, but lawmakers said both packages give the Justice Department much of what it wants.
"It involves greater surveillance. It involves improving the working relationship among federal and state and local agencies. It involves more border control and border opportunities to deal with those involved in crossing our borders," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, said of the Senate version.
"And it certainly involves dealing with holding certain suspects who may be the subject of investigative efforts."
Civil liberties concerns linger
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement on Thursday saying the House version "fails to adequately protect liberty."
"Ten years from now, our fear is that the American public will look back to this legislation and say, 'this is where we crossed the line to a surveillance society,'" said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington National Office.
"Because of the broad new powers to wiretap telephone and Internet communications, the legislation weakens essential checks and balances that the judicial branch has exercised over law enforcement."
The ACLU remains concerned about the bill's wiretapping and Internet surveillance provisions, and what it calls an "overly broad definition of 'terrorism' which includes activities that no reasonable person would consider terrorist activities."
The organization did praise some revisions, including changes to the Bush administration's proposal to indefinitely detain immigrants. The changes require the attorney general to periodically review whether a detainee remains a threat.
Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, the House minority leader, said both sides have had to compromise. He called the legislation approved by the Judiciary Committee "bipartisan."
"Obviously, you don't get everything you want," Gephardt said. "But I think [the committee] threaded the needle in terms of balancing constitutional protections with giving proper authority to the attorney general and to the law enforcement agencies to be able to carry out the best investigation -- hopefully successful investigation -- that we can."
Gephardt defended the sunset clause.
"I think that's an important feature," he said. "I think a lot of us believe that these changes are needed, but we're not sure they ought to be permanently embedded in the law. And I think that's a good checkpoint for us to all look at two years from now and see where we are and what needs to be done."
More work needs to be done
Other aspects also would have to be worked out. Daschle said Wednesday he would like to see the anti-money laundering legislation that's also under consideration in Congress added to the antiterrorism bill.
Another controversial measure has to do with the easing of restrictions on the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, which currently cannot be shared among law enforcement agencies.
Under the administration's proposal, law enforcement agencies would be able to share such information. The Bush administration has refused to accede to recommendations that federal investigators be required to notify a court after they share any such information.
Ashcroft defended that stance on Thursday, saying the requirement of a court notification would only add a layer of bureaucracy that "simply doesn't provide a benefit and it provides an encumbrance."
The attorney general noted the stakes have been raised since September 11.
"Our laws governing terrorism should reflect the priority that the American people give to the fight against terrorism," Ashcroft said. "And the American people expect us to give this fight the highest priority."
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