Washington Post Editorial
October 16, 2001

Stampeded in the House

THE HOUSE Republican leadership made a mockery of the normal legislative process last week in forcing a vote on a major anti-terrorism bill that had been anonymously written only the night before and that not even most members of the Judiciary Committee had had more than a fleeting chance to read.

The bill has enormous implications for civil liberties, on which it arguably infringes in a number of serious ways while conferring additional powers on law enforcement officials to combat terrorism. Days after the vote, no one knows the extent of the infringement, save that there is some. Some parts of the bill are worthy; it is not clear that others are even needed. The contents have not been subject to serious hearings or other searching examination.

The House had had before it a better, more thoughtful bill, reported out of the normally deeply divided Judiciary Committee by a unanimous and bipartisan vote of 36 to 0. It, too, would have greatly expanded the government's powers, but not enough, the administration said -- and the leadership junked it. There followed a charade in which all manner of members of both parties complained they had no idea what they were voting on, were fearful that aspects of the substitute bill went too far -- yet voted for it anyway, lest there be a further terrorist attack and they be accused of not having provided the government sufficient means to defend against it.

Democrats made a show of objecting to the substitution, voting in favor of taking up the Judiciary Committee bill instead. But when they then lost, all but 79 voted in favor of the substitute, thereby having the issue both ways. Minority Leader Dick Gephardt was one of those who put himself on both sides of the issue; many Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, had earlier done much the same.

The committee had conferred greater surveillance powers on the government, but had sensibly limited them to two years, on the theory that a subsequent Congress could then better decide whether they were justified. The administration resisted this "sunset" provision. Under the new bill, the provisions could remain in effect for five years and, in the case of continuing investigations, even longer.

The administration had originally asked for the power to detain indefinitely noncitizens whom the attorney general even suspected of terrorist activity. The committee bill rightly hedged that power. The substitute weakens the hedge. The committee had granted the government greater authority to conduct surveillance and to share sensitive information across jurisdictional lines -- let intelligence officials see normally forbidden grand jury information, for example. But the grants had been subject at several important junctures to judicial review, which the substitute drops. There are other examples. They call this the PATRIOT act, for "Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." The politics are pretty obvious. But some of the tools in this bill are not appropriate, and in the long run those who ignore the risk to civil liberties in seeking to meet the risk of terrorism do the country a disservice.

Copyright 2001. Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

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