Anti-terrorism bill ineffective

After the Senate Judiciary Committee delayed finalizing an anti-terrorism bill, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday, “Talk won’t prevent terrorism.”

True, but neither will this bill.

Sent from the Bush administration, it aims to increase federal wiretapping authority, lengthen detainment time of suspected terrorists and erode barriers between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Though proposed in an effort to eliminate the domestic terrorist threat, what’s left of the bill will do little more than invade Americans’ privacy and undermine our civil liberties.

Originally, the bill proposed allowing authorities to detain non-U.S. citizens indefinitely without filing charges. Sensibly, representatives and senators immediately balked at the provision. However, both houses’ judiciary committees lowered the detention time to seven days – five more than the current 48-hour limit – negating the measure’s effectiveness. Now, the innocent can be detained longer while actual terrorists, if not charged, will be released before any effective steps can be taken.

Also under the administration’s proposal, the FBI and other federal agencies would have been given almost limitless authority to use wiretaps and electronic eavesdropping devices. If used thoroughly enough, the increased authority could certainly make domestic terrorism nearly impossible. But the massive invasion of privacy necessary to carrying this out clearly violates constitutional rights. So, in another compromise, House and Senate leaders curbed the proposal. Now, if the bill passes, federal authorities will have the power to invade individual privacy but will not be able to mount surveillance broad enough to prevent well-planned terror attacks in the near future.

Tuesday the first real partisan division emerged when Senate Judiciary Committee members disagreed over removing boundaries that dictate how intelligence and law enforcement agencies share information. Currently, a court order must be obtained to legally share information, since the executive branch controls both types of agencies. Removing the judicial branch’s authority would undermine the government’s system of checks and balances. And considering past transgressions – such as the FBI and CIA’s shameful smear campaigns under former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover – the judicial oversight seems not only reasonable, but necessary. So in another compromise, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) proposed unrestricted sharing of information in an emergency situation with the ridiculous provision that a court order be obtained afterward. This time, the White House balked.

The government is at an impasse. To be effective, anti-terrorism legislation must be invasive and ultimately unconstitutional. So until the threat is eradicated, they must choose between liberty and security against terrorists. Senators and representatives should resist the urge to pass this counter-productive legislation, difficult as it might be not to enact something with the prefix “anti-terrorism.” But liberty isn’t always easy. It doesn’t always come without strings attached. The truest tests of American’s commitment to freedom have always come during our most difficult days.