WASHINGTON — A CONTROVERSIAL antiterrorism bill, which seems to have more lives than a cat, will likely reach a vote in the House this week - testing how much lawmakers are willing to loosen civil liberties in the name of safety.
The bill was first set in motion more than a year ago by President Clinton after terrorist bombings in Israel. It was given new life after the Oklahoma City bombing, passing in the Senate, but it was thought to be demolished last fall by an unlikely coalition of freshmen congressmen, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Arabs and Muslim Americans.
But now the bill is back. House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois drained away many of the domestic antiterrorism provisions, like roving wiretaps, that were included after the Oklahoma City bombing. Left in are most of the provisions targeting international terrorism. Pinned onto the bill are some favorite GOP Contract With America crime provisions that relax current laws of habeas corpus, allowing for speedier death penalties.
Both supporters and critics of the bill are engaging in a tough media-image war. Bill sponsors last week brought together families shattered by the Oklahoma City bombing to plead for greater federal ability to pursue terrorists. Diane Leonard, a saleswoman for a greeting-card company, had seldom thought about terrorism until her husband, Don, a Secret Service agent, was killed in the blast. She supports a crackdown.
Opponents of the bill who gathered for the cameras included the family of bombing victim Julie Welch, an interpreter for the Social Security Administration, as well as two former death-row inmates who would either be on death row or executed had the proposed habeas laws been enacted.
The antiterror legislation would set dangerous precedents, say civil libertarians. The bill, which allows secret evidence to be presented in court, would damage due process, they say. In addition, proposals allowing the executive branch to designate overseas groups as terrorist would make foreign policy arbitrary and political. (While Hamas and Jewish extremist groups have been designated as terrorist, for example, Sinn Fein, the military wing of the Irish Republican Army, has not.)
In addition, recent federal behavior in Waco, Texas, and in Ruby Ridge, Idaho - where US law-enforcement agents besieged extremist groups with tragic results - makes some conservatives uneasy about expanding FBI powers.
Currently, the NRA is a key player in the antiterrorism equation. Sources on Capitol Hill say the NRA's desire to repeal the assault-weapons ban has been tied to the antiterrorism package. Republicans are worried about losing a get-tough appearance on crime in an election season if antiterror laws first introduced by Mr. Clinton are not passed. Hence, they want NRA approval of the antiterror bill - before trying to undo the ban on assault weapons.
Yet the NRA, which has backed off its original alliance with the ACLU, will not support the antiterrorism bill unless something called the Barr Amendment is included in the vote this week.
The Barr Amendment would defuse concerns about potential civil-liberty abuses. It would strike down provisions allowing for court trials using secret evidence. It would strike federal access to hotel and motel records. And it would alter proposed laws banning, for the first time ever, Americans from supporting or having political associations with overseas groups designated as terrorist by the executive branch.
Critics note that under the antiterror bill, it would have been impossible throughout the 1980s for Americans to provide legal aid, for example, to former political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela, the South African president and a member of the African National Congress, a group that had not renounced violence.
Mr. Hyde argues that the civil-liberty concerns have been answered, and that proposals like ''posse comitatus,'' which allow the armed services to join with local police, have been removed. ''Passage of this bill will achieve increased protection from the twin threats of international terrorism and espionage.''
''The fundamental problems, the First and Fifth Amendment violations, have not been touched,'' says Gregory Nojeim of the ACLU.