Antiterror bill gets fast track on jolted Hill
The legislation gives broad new authority to eavesdrop and search without warrants.
WASHINGTON — With the men in hazmat suits only just out of its halls, Congress returns today to move forward on the most sweeping enhancements to law-enforcement powers since World War II.
Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has said that a clear and present danger requires immediate action on tougher antiterrorist laws. Congress wanted more time. The consequences for the nation's civil liberties were too high to rush into, members said.
But with anthrax attacks on the Capitol and several news organizations, that danger suddenly got clearer and much more present - both for lawmakers and the press corps that covers them. And differences on the proposed legislation were quietly set aside.
Working in hastily reassigned venues, congressional staff worked out the details of a compromise on antiterrorism that comes close to what the Bush team originally proposed. The bill includes many features that civil
liberties groups say were unthinkable before Sept. 11, including broad new authority to eavesdrop, search without warrants, and detain suspects.
It's not the first time Congress will have moved quickly in a national emergency. On the first of Franklin Roosevelt's first 100 days, the House passed his emergency banking bill in 38 minutes, without reading it. The Senate took two hours and 15 minutes.
During "the New Deal and after Pearl Harbor, many pieces of legislation were passed with very cursory review," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "This shows us that Congress can act quickly when it needs to...."
Nonetheless, the difficulties this week in just going about the business of Congress have been severe.
Even before congressional offices closed last week for anthrax sweeps, rumors - swiftly corrected and replaced by new rumors - competed with normal legislative business for the attention of everyone who works here.
Since the shutdown, members and staff have been cut off from files and office phones - and the quiet staff-to-staff communication on which this institution has long depended. People had trouble finding one another. Mail didn't get through. Lobbyists knew important decisions on antiterrorism were pending, but weren't sure how to influence them.
"It has been a terrible legislative process," says Kit Gage, coordinator of the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom, a watchdog group on new antiterrorist legislation. "The anthrax scare has obviously made it hard to do any negotiation and communicate with people."
FROM the start, the strategy of the leadership in both houses has been to try to move along the bills needed to deal with the national security crisis. The Senate leadership negotiated its antiterrorist bill directly with the White House and Justice Department, rather than risk protracted battles in a divided Judiciary Committee. The bill passed the Senate on Oct. 11, with one dissenting vote.
On the House side, the Judiciary Committee unanimously voted out its own bill, which included stronger civil liberties protections than the Senate bill. But after intense pressure from the White House, the GOP House leadership produced a proposal much closer to the administration's request. The bill cleared the House on Oct. 12 on a vote of 337 to 79, but GOP conservatives and liberal Democrats still promised a fight over final passage.
With last week's anthrax scare, the pressure to show that Congress can respond quickly to a national security crisis became even greater.
"Congress doesn't want to be charged with holding things up," says Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. "They're afraid of what would happen if someone pointed an accusatory finger at them...."
The new antiterrorist bill aims to make it easier to identify and thwart terrorists. It also challenges longstanding distinctions in law between gathering information for intelligence purposes and for a criminal investigation, where the legal standards to be met by law enforcement have been much higher.
The bill permits law-enforcement officials to conduct more searches without notifying suspects. It also expands eavesdropping authority to allow tracking conversations of suspected terrorists on any phone, cellphone, or over the Internet. The Clinton administration proposed such an expansion of powers in 1994, but Congress balked.
It also allows information sharing among federal agencies that would be forbidden under current law, including information from grand-jury investigations and wiretaps. Critics say that the failure of agencies to share information about terrorist suspects contributed to a failure to thwart the Sept. 11 attacks.
It restricts access to biological agents or toxins that are not "reasonably justified by a peaceful purpose." This could especially impact noncitizens working in universities or research labs.
New money-laundering provisions allow the secretary of the Treasury to require special recordkeeping and reporting measures from banks. The effect could be to exclude foreign banks that are primarily money-laundering concerns from the US financial system. Some banks worry that such requirements could also scare away legitimate customers.
In an important concession to those worried about civil liberties, the compromise bill would have many of the most controversial features of the new law expire in four years. The original Senate bill did not include sunset provisions; the House version proposed ending some provisions after two years.