Military action adds urgency to new snooping laws
WASHINGTON — American airstrikes and the threat of reprisals on US soil are pressuring Congress to pick up its pace on antiterror measures.
The Bush administration had hoped that lawmakers would speedily pass laws to better track suspected terrorists and plug gaps in airplane security. But the bills slowed as lawmakers wrestled with details.
Now, some in Congress see a revival of the unity that led to quick passage of a use-of-force resolution and $55 billion in aid for rebuilding and for airlines after last month's devastating terrorist incidents.
"After the shock and horror and sadness of the first attacks, bipartisanship was embraced by everybody, but the partisan stuff started to creep back," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California. "After Sunday's attacks [by the US military], we'll get back to doing the right thing."
Such views won't necessarily sweep all disagreements aside. House Republicans, in particular, worry about a rash expansion of federal authority.
But with US military action under way - and home defenses on alert - the legislation has acquired added urgency.
Key provisions will include new authority to detain terrorist suspects and to track their communications and finances. The federal role in airport security and airline safety will also expand dramatically.
Some lawmakers are also pushing to transform the Office of Homeland Security, a new cabinet-level post, into an official federal agency with budget authority and broad powers. For example, it could coordinate far-flung services such as the Border Patrol, the National Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as security on all venues of travel, including airlines, railroads, tunnels, and maritime traffic.
Some of the elements of this package, such as new curbs on money laundering, have been working their way through Congress for years, mainly as a tool to fight drug trafficking or tax evasion. Others, such as the federalization of airport security, are a direct response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Initially, the Bush administration's request for sweeping new powers for law enforcement and new laws on airline security ran into strong opposition.
Republican House leaders objected to federalizing airport security, while Democrats in both the House and Senate demanded that more be done to help displaced airline workers. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota is planning a procedural cloture vote to break the impasse today.
At the same time, conservative Republicans and members of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party were balking at granting sweeping new police powers.
Concern about preserving the rule of law is especially marked in the House of Representatives, where lawmakers have been insisting that parts of an antiterrorism package be phased out - or at least come up for review - after two years. "Most people are quite comforted by the two-year sunset," says House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee released its compromise version of an antiterrorism bill, which was negotiated with the White House and the Department of Justice. The bill scales back many administration requests and includes checks on new surveillance and search powers, but lacks the two-year sunset provision.
Some civil liberties groups worry the measures are too sweeping.
"The definition of terrorism in these bills is still very broad and can include the kinds of things that nobody in the United States thinks should be targeted, such as domestic dissent," says Kit Gage, coordinator of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom, formed after the Sept. 11 attacks to be a watchdog on new legislation.
The bills come as the nation has stepped up military and police efforts to the highest level of mobilization since World War II.
Polls show that the public is willing to accept some loss of rights in exchange for greater security. Moreover, in recent days, officials and lawmakers alike have put increasing focus on the likelihood of more terrorist attacks. "They have additional attacks planned, I'm sure," Sen. John Kyl (R) of Arizona said Sunday on TV.