Sweeping Antiterrorism Bill Gains New Ground on Hill

But latest version opposed by two unlikely allies: NRA and ACLU

A major antiterrorism bill controversial enough to unite the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association in opposition has suddenly resurfaced.

The bill, which could reach a House vote as early as this week, would vastly increase the scope and power of federal law enforcement. It is a new version of antiterrorism legislation proposed after the Oklahoma City bombing last May that killed 168 people and became a litmus test for politicians' concern over national security.

The comprehensive terrorism legislation quickly passed the Senate in June. But it got derailed in the House in October by an unlikely coalition of civil libertarians, Arab Americans, and gun owners who pressed for changes after hearings on Ruby Ridge and Waco raised concerns about reckless decisions and actions by federal law-enforcement agencies.

Of chief concern are the act's sweeping new powers and potential for abuse in the area of privacy and due process. The proposed laws allow for the use of secret evidence in court. They permit US officials to designate groups as terrorist, and, for the first time, prosecute Americans who make donations to charitable organizations associated with those groups. Most controversially, the bill allows for the suspension of habeas corpus - setting a time limit on a prisoner's constitutional right to have his or her case reviewed.

Because of these and other potential civil-liberties abuses, the bill, originally proposed last February by the White House, was thought to be dead in the water. But on Nov. 30, in a skillful political move, House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois proposed a new anti- terrorism amendment that addressed some of these concerns.

The new bill eliminates, for example, a proposed expansion of federal authority to conduct wiretaps and provisions allowing the armed services to join forces with state and local police. Both measures troubled legislators devoted to getting the federal government off their constituents' backs.

Most of the original bill, however, remains. ''We've got a terrorism bill that substantially expands law enforcement at a time when a lot of people feel federal abuses have gone overboard,'' says Greg Nojeim of the ACLU, in speaking about the reason NRA officials joined with the liberal group last week. Some 22 freshman lawmakers and more than 20 prominent law professors also signed letters opposing it.

Yet politically, with the Ruby Ridge and Waco hearings now a summer memory, and with major issues like troop deployment to Bosnia and a budget agreement on the plate, the climate may be ripe for slipping the act through.

''Everyone is more comfortable with the bill now, and it could get to the floor [this] week,'' said a senior source in the office of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia.

THE FBI, Justice Department, and CIA officials have long advocated stronger measures for keeping track of immigrants and groups that could be linked with terrorism. The possibility of new types of chemical and nuclear terrorism greatly concerns these agencies.

The antiterrorism legislation provides for a ''counterterrorism center'' with scores of new agents, some of whom will conduct more extensive dialogue with overseas intelligence services.

The origins of the dramatic new legislation date from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York and from a White House focus on terrorism emerging out of Middle East peace initiatives following the 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Prior to the Oklahoma City bombing, antiterrorism legislation was popularly referred to on the Hill as an ''anti-Hamas bill,'' referring to the Islamic group based in the Gaza Strip.

''The Oklahoma bombing turned this into a domestic bill,'' says a House Judiciary Committee source. ''But it has always been mainly an international bill.''

For this reason, Arab-American groups in particular oppose the bill and the ''demonization'' of their community they say it promotes. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, notes that a Freedom of Information Act request about a ''totally mainstream'' Arab-American group yielded 12 volumes of material gathered by the FBI on American Palestinian civic groups in 60 US cities, including voter registration records.

Senior House Judiciary Committee staffers, however, say the ACLU and NRA coalition against the bill ''overexaggerates'' concerns about federal intrusiveness. ''There are an overwhelming amount of protections for citizens and aliens in this country,'' says one. They also predict they have the votes to pass antiterrorism legislation, despite opposition from freshman conservatives on Capitol Hill.

''It's disturbing to me to see the ACLU manipulate rationally-thinking Republicans,'' said one highly placed Judiciary official.

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