WILL the bombing of the World Trade Center spur Congress to pass new and sweeping laws regarding domestic acts of terror?
Within two weeks of the explosion, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York introduced legislation that makes domestic terrorism an offense potentially punishable by death. It makes providing support for terrorist activities a crime that could result in a 10-year jail sentence.
In its current draft form, however, the legislation goes further:
* It allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to obtain phone logs and other information without a warrant or subpoena.
* It requires that all explosives include a "taggant" - microscopic chemicals - that allows identification and detection. This would apply to most of the 4.1 billion pounds of explosives used in the United States each year.
* It sets up preinspection stations at foreign airports for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to catch visitors with falsified documents. The INS reports that a significant number of people claiming asylum in the US are arriving with fake documents.
Mr. Schumer introduced the legislation March 9 in the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime and criminal justice. Schumer may make the section on taggants a separate bill since it faces stiff opposition from the explosives industry and possibly the National Rifle Association (NRA). There is no companion bill in the Senate. But House staff members say the terrorism legislation could become part of a crime package introduced later this year.
The taggant issue will be difficult to get through Congress if it is opposed by the NRA. Trey Hodgkins, an NRA lobbyist, says the organization has no problem with identifications in explosives as long as the legislation exempts smokeless gunpowder and black gunpowder. The NRA is afraid that gunpowder with a taggant would be a form of registration since ammunition made with the gunpowder could be traced.
However, government officials say that exempting gunpowder would make it the explosive of choice for terrorists delivering pipe bombs. "It is the propellent in the overwhelming majority of homemade bombs," says a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), which reported March 16 that US bombings rose 20 percent in 1992 to 2,989.
Explosives makers are also vowing a stiff fight. In the late 1970s, the 3M Company had developed a taggant that was industry-tested. "There was a detonation at a member company, GOEX, and that company concluded it was caused by a 3M taggant," says Frederick Smith Jr., president of the Institute of Makers of Explosives. "We oppose the 3M taggant, it's not safe to put in all formulations."
The 3M Company sold the license for the compound to a Minneapolis firm, MICROTRACE Inc., which supplies the product to the Swiss government. Company president Richard Livesay says he has not heard of any problems from the Swiss about the product. He disputes Mr. Smith's assertion that it was the cause of the explosion.
An ATF spokesman suggests it might be time to investigate new technologies for identification purposes. "It's been over a decade since the program was developed," the spokesman says.
Getting a death-penalty provision through Congress could also be difficult. Civil-liberty organizations are certain to oppose it. Currently, certain skyjacking offenses and the killing of a federal law-enforcement official carry a death penalty.
According to a congressional aide, two people are now on death row as a result of federal laws. Their cases are working their way through the court system. The last federal execution was of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953.
Congress has to be careful how it defines aiding terrorism. For example, Hamas, a militant Palestinian group, is raising funds in New Jersey and Detroit. Congressional aides admit that any move to ban such activities would probably face a court challenge.
"We are on shaky grounds covering such areas from a terrorist angle," one aide says.