New York Times
September 25, 2001

Lawmakers Tap Brakes on Bush's Hurtling Antiterrorism Measure


WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's hope that Congress would rush through antiterrorism legislation with little debate withered today as members of the House and Senate served notice that they wanted more time to consider the proposal, especially to ensure that they did not go too far in limiting civil liberties.

The House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman had scheduled a meeting for Tuesday morning to act on the Bush proposal, postponed its session for at least a week after protests by committee members from both parties. And Democrats in the Senate say it is likely to be a week or more before legislation is ready to be voted on there, not days as the president had hoped.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today, Attorney General John Ashcroft moved quickly to challenge the view of those in Congress who had urged a more deliberate approach to devising an antiterrorism package.

"The American people do not have the luxury of unlimited time in erecting the necessary defenses to future terrorist acts," Mr. Ashcroft told the panel as he urged quick passage of the administration's proposal and insisted it would strengthen the nation's security without sacrificing civil liberties. He said the danger "did not pass with the atrocities" of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

He said it was necessary for Congress to provide the authorities "with the tools necessary to identify, dismantle, disrupt and punish terrorist organizations before they strike again."

Representative F. James Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the committee, had dismissed concerns that the Congress was moving too quickly and had scheduled the Tuesday morning session to complete work on the administration's legislative program.

Mr. Sensenbrenner opened the hearing by telling skeptical colleagues that they should listen closely to Mr. Ashcroft's description of the proposal.

"I truly believe you will find it fair and balanced," he said, "and it should be enacted quickly "to avoid another devastating day like Sept. 11."

But at the end of the day, those who have urged patience, and they included Democrats and Republicans, prevailed. Mr. Sensenbrenner bowed to those who said during the hearing that they were being asked to consider the Bush proposal in haste.

Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, argued that the members were rushing to consider a bill that had not even been committed to paper. Further, Mr. Conyers told Mr. Ashcroft, "there are a number of provisions in your measure that give us constitutional trouble."

Mr. Ashcroft responded that he was confident that the administration's proposal would pass constitutional muster.

The administration package would expand the authority of law enforcement officials to use wiretaps against suspected terrorists, would make it easier to track suspects, would allow courts to use information gathered by foreign governments even if it were obtained by methods that would not meet United States constitutional standards and would increase resources to fight terrorism.

The element of the plan that has attracted the most debate would seemingly allow immigrants suspected of terrorism to be detained indefinitely. Senate aides said today that the administration had already agreed to omit that proposal or significantly modify it.

One Senate staff aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Democrats and Republicans had been working intensely to produce a bipartisan compromise but that it would take at least two weeks to attain one.

One issue that vexes lawmakers and aides is how to define terrorism. Some civil libertarians have argued that the administration is seeking language so broad that it will allow the antiterrorism laws to be used against common criminals.

Mr. Ashcroft was pressed by Representative Howard Coble, Republican of North Carolina, as to whether the administration's proposal would have prevented the events of Sept. 11.

"There is absolutely no guarantee that these safeguards would have avoided the Sept. 11 occurrence," Mr. Ashcroft replied. "We do know that without them, the occurrence took place."

In addition to the compromise efforts in the House and Senate judiciary committees, Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is offering a companion bill.

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

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