Roadblocks in Congress to Ashcroft's Anti-Terror Legislation

Following military strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Congress is ready to consider new legal tools to identify and hunt down terrorists.

The House and Senate are expected to take up separate bills this week, but significant differences between the packages could delay final passage for several weeks.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said last week he was pleased that both chambers have made progress in negotiating "the right tools to fight terrorism."

Ashcroft, a former senator, has publicly prodded Congress since the Sept. 11 terror attacks for laws that would make it easier for authorities to detain terrorism suspects and monitor their communications.

Lawmakers, citing infringements on civil liberties the legislation could bring if not vetted thoroughly, have refused to move with the urgency the administration wants.

They also rejected several of Ashcroft's proposals: indefinite detention of suspected non-American terrorists, easy disclosure of immigrants' private education records and unlimited sharing of information among intelligence, law enforcement, defense and diplomatic officials.
Still, there is universal agreement on several points. They include provisions to expedite the FBI's request for additional translators, make electronic surveillance in anti-terrorism cases easier, extend the statute of limitations in such cases and increase penalties.

The biggest remaining bone of contention is the House's insistence that the expanded police powers expire in 2003.

The House Judiciary Committee wrote the bill pretty much on its own, eschewing direct negotiations with the Justice Department and the White House and instead focused on getting an agreement between Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

House leaders say the sunset provision is the only way they see their members accepting the anti-terrorism package.

"Most people are quite comforted by the two-year sunset and are aware these are difficult times," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. "If we have that, we have a chance to review" the bill's effects.

In contrast, the Senate version was put together through negotiations with the White House and the Justice Department. It has no expiration date and no one during the negotiations asked for one, a Republican aide said.

"No one can guarantee that terrorism will sunset in two years," said Ashcroft. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the House bill "undermines the ability of our law enforcement people to get the job done."

Nonetheless, Senate Democrats have not closed the door to the idea of letting the new police powers expire at some point in the future. "I'm willing to talk about it," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Thursday. "That is a matter for negotiations."

Meanwhile, civil libertarians and privacy organizations across the political spectrum remain intent on getting their concerns addressed in whatever final product emerges.

"Under this legislation, the CIA will gain access to all kinds of information on American citizens that they are now forbidden, because of long and hard experience, from receiving," said Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office.

Joining that view is the conservative Free Congress Foundation, which also wants lawmakers to further scale back the proposals.

"Tearing down America and her Constitution would only give the anti-Americans another victory in addition to the carnage they have already wreaked," the group's president, Paul Weyrich, wrote members of Congress.

On both sides of the Capitol lawmakers are lining up to offer amendments when the packages reach the two floors. Aides said the goal is still to reach a deal through informal negotiations and avoid a formal conference between a select group of House and Senate bargainers.

The last two times the two chambers differed on major anti-terrorism package were after the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, when the package was irrevocably scuttled, and after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when it took lawmakers a full year to get a finished package to the White House for the president's signature.