Congress to Protect Citizens Who Report 'Flying Imams'-Type Suspicions

After nearly a week of intense, behind-the-scenes wrangling, congressional negotiators late Tuesday agreed to include in the pending Sept. 11 security bill sweeping liability protections for citizens who report to authorities suspicious activity they fear might be linked to terrorism.

The "John Doe Protections" provision is meant to address the so-called "Flying Imams" case wherein six Muslim clerics in March sued passengers aboard a U.S. Airways flight because the passengers reported them to authorities, leading to their detention. The clerics were later cleared but their lawsuit, many lawmakers feared, would discourage future vigilance among the flying public.

The Sept. 11 security bill is a top Democratic priority and Republicans fought hard to include the passenger immunity protection, creating common cause with Connecticut Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the conference committee that is knitting together the House and Senate bills.

House Democrats, led by Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, sought changes in the immunity language but were ultimately overwhelmed by the Lieberman-GOP coalition on the conference committee.

"This is a huge win—a hard-fought victory for House Republicans and, more importantly, for the American people," said Rep. Peter King, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee. "In a post-9/11 reality, vigilance is essential to security. Despite the Democratic opposition to this important homeland security measure, I’m thrilled to announce that common sense has prevailed and heroic Americans who report suspicious activity will be protected from frivolous lawsuits."

The legislation is designed to implement currently unfulfilled security recommendations made by the 9/11 commission. The bill is now expected to swiftly pass the House and Senate and be signed into law by President Bush.