A YEAR after the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City legislation intended to bolster the government's hand against terrorism is finally close to becoming the law of the land.
Experts say the measure will provide authorities with some useful new anti-terror tools. But whether it will actually deter terrorists from committing acts of violence is uncertain.
"You are talking about small cells of individuals who are alienated from society and don't see legislative penalties as a risk," says Anthony Cordesman, an expert on international terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "At the same time, these groups tend to be very insecure and their fear of state institutions and law-enforcement agencies tends to be exaggerated, so legislation like this can sometimes have a deterrent effect."
The legislation's central feature, in fact, may have little to do with terrorism. Instead, it would make good on GOP pledges to sharply limit the ability of death-row inmates to appeal their sentences.
The aim of this change is to eliminate lengthy and costly delays afforded by so-called habeas corpus petitions. Its possible effect: a faster pace of death-row executions in America.
According to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the habeas corpus changes are "one of the most important changes in criminal law in this century."
House and Senate GOP leaders say a final version of the long-awaited antiterrorism legislation should pass in both chambers by Friday, a year to the day after the Oklahoma City bombing. President Clinton, who had pressed Congress to deliver the measure to him in time for the anniversary, was expected to grudgingly accept it.
Supporters assert that the bill will provide the federal government with new tools to fight domestic and international terrorism. It makes terrorism a specific federal crime for the first time and requires the inclusion in plastic explosives of "taggants," tiny fragments that can be used to trace manufacturers and buyers.
Other provisions would allow the government to ban fund-raising for foreign groups designated as terrorist organizations and make it easier to deport aliens suspected of belonging to them. It would appropriate $1 billion for counterterrorism programs over four years.
Absent from the bill are several Clinton administration proposals to enhance federal law-enforcement powers, including an expanded use of wiretaps. Republican leaders supported the proposals but were forced to bow to opposition from conservative Republicans in the House that stalled the measure for months.
"All legislation is political," notes Tanya Metaksa, a lobbyist of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which used its clout with GOP conservatives to have the wiretapping language and several other administration proposals removed from the final bill.
Democratic lawmakers vow to redress with follow-up legislation what they contend are major flaws in the antiterror legislation. Civil liberties advocates, meanwhile, assert that a number of its provisions will be challenged and overturned in the courts on constitutional grounds.
"This bill would add the Bill of Rights to the list of casualties in the Oklahoma City bombing," contends Gregory Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union.
CIVIL liberties advocates and others question the constitutionality of the fund-raising ban and the bill's provision that would allow the government to designate foreign groups as terrorist organizations. They claim the former violates the First Amendment right to free association and the latter gives the government too much authority. Critics take aim at provisions designed to make it easier to deport aliens suspected of terrorism, including the holding of secret hearings and withholding by the government of certain evidence.
But the habeas corpus changes remain the antiterror bill's most controversial aspect. Under the changes, inmates convicted of state or federal capital crimes would have only one year in which to file appeals of their sentences to federal courts, and they would be limited to only one appeal. Federal courts would have six months in which to issue decisions. Currently, there are no time or quantity limits on habeas corpus petitions.
Supporters of the changes insist that they are related to terrorism, saying that they will ensure the speedy executions of Oklahoma City bombing suspects Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols if they are convicted. They will also act as a deterrent against future terrorist acts, supporters contend.
Mr. Nojeim says that while the proposed limits on appeals could withstand judicial scrutiny, he questions a provision requiring federal courts to defer to state court habeas corpus rulings unless they are "unreasonably wrong." The provision, he says, "is ripe for a challenge."
Dropped from the measure at the insistence of pro-NRA lawmakers was an administration proposal that would allow federal agents to switch taps between the telephones of a terrorist suspect. They must now obtain separate court orders for each telephone.