October 12, 2001
Senate Passes Bill Boosting Electronic Surveillance
By John Lancaster
WASHINGTON -- The Senate last night passed a broad anti-terrorism bill that would significantly enhance the power of law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance. The House is slated to take up its version of the bill today.
Lawmakers had been under heavy pressure to pass the legislation in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, and last night it showed: At the urging of Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), they repeatedly turned aside efforts by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) to amend the bill to address what he said were its failures to adequately protect civil liberties.
It appeared that the Senate passed the bill as drafted during intensive negotiations over the last three weeks between the Bush administration and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Although Leahy and his colleagues gave Justice Department officials much of what they sought in the way of new legal tools, they did not accede to an administration request to allow the indefinite jailing without trial of noncitizens suspected of involvement in terrorism.
"I have done my best to strike a reasonable balance between the need to address the threat of terrorism, which we all keenly feel at the present time, and the need to protect our constitutional freedoms," Leahy said in a statement. "Despite my misgivings, I have acquiesced in some of the administration's proposals because it is important to preserve national unity in this time of crisis and to move the legislative process forward."
The House version does not go as far as the Senate bill. Administration officials have been especially troubled by a provision under which its most controversial measures, relating to electronic surveillance, would expire after two years. After intensive White House lobbying, House leaders last night were considering a compromise that would extend that period to five years.
The Senate bill contains no such "sunset" clause, but Leahy has said on several occasions – and his spokesman reiterated yesterday – that he would be open to adding one when negotiators seek to reconcile differences in conference.
The 243-page Senate bill – the "Uniting and Strengthening America (USA) Act" – includes a number of relatively noncontroversial changes such as strengthening criminal penalties for terrorism and beefing up security along the U.S.-Canadian border. But it also incorporates a number of measures long sought by law enforcement agencies but resisted in Congress on civil liberties and other grounds.
"A lot of the provisions in this bill are not brand new," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee. "A lot of them have been requested for years, and had they been in play, who knows, we might have been able to interdict these terrorists" on Sept. 11.
Among other things, the Senate bill would allow "roving wiretaps" in intelligence investigations covering multiple phones, as opposed to a single line; make it easier for investigators to track phone, e-mail and Internet traffic; and – perhaps most important – permit agencies such as the FBI to share grand jury and wiretap transcripts with intelligence agencies.
"If there is a single goal of the intelligence components of this anti-terrorism bill, it is to change the focus from responding to acts that have already occurred to preventing acts that threaten the lives of American citizens," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the intelligence committee. "We cannot continue to use critical information only in a criminal trial."
For now, the biggest difference between the House and Senate bills involves the longevity of key provisions dealing with wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance. To allay the fears of some House members that the hastily drafted bill could have unforeseen consequences, particularly with regard to privacy, members of the House Judiciary Committee agreed that those provisions would expire in 2003. They could then be renewed, revised or abandoned.
Opposing the the sunset provision, White House officials contend that the war on terrorism is a long-term proposition, and a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said he is sympathetic to that view.
"I don't think he's too enamored of it," said the spokesman, John Feehery, who described the Bush administration lobbying effort as "intense." He added, "As someone who's been involved in the war on drugs, he doesn't think we should limit ourselves in these fights, especially in this fight against terrorism."
As a compromise, Feehery said, Hastert is interested in "possibly doing a five-year" sunset clause in the belief that "it's going to be a long war."
White House officials have been pressing House leaders to abandon their bill in favor of the Senate legislation. So far that effort has met with little success. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told reporters Wednesday, "We will bring the bill to the floor and let the House express itself."
Copyright © 2001, Washington Post. All rights reserved.
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