New York Times Editorial
September 23, 2001

The Home Front: Security and Liberty

Whenever something terrible happens, the natural political response is to pass a bill. Whether it will do any good is frequently less important than whether it looks dramatic.

Washington is in danger of going down that road when it comes to the new and critical war against terrorism. There are any number of practical steps the federal government can take to strengthen its ability to identify and prosecute terrorists. Unfortunately, many of the ideas being shopped by the Bush administration would reduce constitutional protections with no obvious benefit to national security.

Attorney General John Ashcroft's hastily assembled antiterrorism package contains some useful proposals. It is hard to quarrel with the argument that the statute of limitations should be removed when it comes to prosecuting terrorists. Federal agents should also have a very clear ability to conduct roving wiretaps that follow terrorism suspects from place to place instead of being limited to a particular phone line.

But other proposals from the attorney general do not seem to provide tools agents really need. In fact, some amount to a wish list of things that the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have unsuccessfully lobbied for in the past and that do not make sense now. Other provisions suffer from a blunderbuss approach. It makes sense to promote greater sharing of information obtained in terrorist investigations, for example. But a flawed section of the Ashcroft measure would permit widespread disclosure of wiretap information within the executive branch with no clear requirement that the shared information have a real connection to national security a clear invitation to abuse. Another troubling provision would allow the attorney general to indefinitely detain legal immigrants with only very limited court review. The provision would cover people who have not been charged with any crime.

Congress went down a similar path after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Responding to that horror, it approved an antiterrorism law that gave the impression of fast action but had virtually no connection to what happened in Oklahoma City. The legislation, which passed by a wide margin, broadened the government's ability to detain and deport legal immigrants, even though immigrants had nothing to do with the bombing. Ever since the bill was enacted, the government has been wrestling with the problem of law-abiding immigrants who have lived peacefully in this country for a long time and are suddenly deported when someone discovers they were convicted of a minor crime years ago.

For legislators, the easiest thing to do in a time of crisis is to approve any package that comes under the banner of cracking down on evildoers, without looking too hard at the practical implications. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has done the nation a big favor by asking questions about the attorney general's package, thus helping to prevent a stampede toward passage on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Leahy has put together a package of his own that jettisons some of the more dubious provisions of the attorney general's plan, while adding some short-term fixes that might actually do some good. Among other things, Mr. Leahy wants to triple the number of border patrol and customs officers assigned to the Canadian border, and to aid the F.B.I.'s hiring of translators, who are desperately needed for counterterrorism investigations. While allowing agents to conduct intelligence wiretaps of terrorist suspects as they move from phone to phone is extremely important, it will do little good if officials aren't able to understand the language in which the suspects are talking.

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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