WASHINGTON – A broad coalition of parties on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum have expressed their concern that new anti-terror legislation could hurt the very principles it is trying to protect.
Special interest groups as well as congressional members have said they are uncomfortable with some of the legislation designed to stop terror because it could impact Americans' civil liberties.
"It's interesting how broadly [concerns] cross party lines on this issue," said Jeff Hartley, communication director for Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah. "If you look at the American Civil Liberties Union agenda, which is usually termed leftist, and then you compare it to the libertarian interest in this issue, well they are very similar. They're aligned."
A Hard Sell
Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees this week will take up the Anti-Terrorism Act.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked Congress for authority to investigate and detain individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. The bill also seeks, among other things to:
• Allow law enforcement authorities to obtain nationwide "pen register" and "trap and trace" orders that permit them to learn the incoming or outgoing phone numbers from a particular telephone.
• Extend the amount of time a court order can be used to conduct physical searches from 45 to 90 days and electronic surveillance from 90 days to one year.
• Place no limit on the length of time an alien suspected of terrorism can be detained without filing charges.
• Extend the roaming wire tap authority already in existence to multiple forms of communications, including the Internet.
• Allow authorities to use intelligence information from foreign sources that would have been illegally obtained under U.S. constitutional provisions.
Bob Levy, senior fellow for constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, has said the bill allows the federal government "to move where we have not allowed it to move before."
"The problems we now face, if rationally appraised, are attributable in part to a massive failure of government and it seems appropriate if not tantamount not to remedy that problem by assigning to government yet more power than we have permitted it to assume in the past," Levy said.
Ashcroft has assured members that the measures will be used strictly for combating terror, and has urged Congress for swift action so law enforcement can begin applying the law.
"We met with [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman] Sen. Leahy this morning again and expressed to him my deep concern over the pace with which we are making process," Ashcroft said Tuesday. "I think it is time for us to be productive on behalf of the American people so that our protection for the American people can in fact be effective."
Members of the House committee that has oversight of the Justice Department also are concerned that many provisions assault civil liberties.
U.S. Rep. Robert Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, told Fox News that the provisions are too vague in their scope and could be left open to applications that go beyond terrorist investigations.
Scott said he was specifically troubled by the language allowing law enforcement the right to tap a person's phone conversations, regardless of what phone the individual is using.
"These provisions were not limited to terrorism. They're general wiretap authority. Had they been limited to terrorism investigations, that would have passed quickly," Scott said. "But when it says the FBI, the CIA and other law enforcement have extended powers generically, well that’s something to be concerned about."
But late Tuesday, one of the committee members concerned about the civil liberties implications, switched gears. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, said most of the concerns had been addressed in the bill with more clarifying language, so-called sunset provisions, or had been dropped entirely from the bill.
"We have done a good job in putting in the safeguards we need," he said.
Easier Passage in Upper Chamber
The Senate also has reservations but appears willing to let the bill pass. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said one of the major issues yet to be resolved is a provision addressing money laundering. But, he added, President Bush, in a meeting with leaders Tuesday, "was very forceful ... about the need to include it."
Sen. Leahy said he was disappointed that the White House changed its position on the sharing of grand jury information with agencies outside of law enforcement, and has asked the administration to see if the issue can be resolved. If so, Leahy's feeling was that anti-terrorism legislation could be "wrapped up in a matter of hours."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, ranking member on the Senate committee, also said he believes it's possible to wrap up work in the bill quickly.
"I think we've got to have it done by tonight. If not, let's call the bill up Thursday and have it out and whoever wins, wins," he said.