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Ashcroft, Seeking Broad Powers, Says Congress Must Act Quickly

Chicago IMC repost, courtesy of the National Lawyer's Guild.

Ashcroft, Seeking Broad Powers, Says Congress Must Act Quickly



Attorney General John Ashcroft implored lawmakers today to approve the Bush administration's anti terrorism package by next week, warning: "Talk will not prevent terrorism. We need to have action by the Congress."

Facing bipartisan resistance to proposals like increased electronic surveillance powers and the indefinite detention of immigrants considered national security threats, Mr. Ashcroft argued that such powers were needed to disrupt terrorist activity. "We need the tools to prevent terrorism," he said in an appearance on the CBS News program "Face the Nation."

In fact, over the last decade there has often been more talk than action on antiterrorism initiatives, some nearly identical to those proposed by the Bush administration in response to the devastation in New York and at the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Since the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993, Congress has received a raft of proposals for expanded electronic surveillance, tighter airport security, tougher money-laundering laws, a counter terrorism czar, increased intelligence sharing and stepped-up monitoring of foreign students.

Some legislation passed, including measures to increase criminal penalties for acts of terrorism, crack down on immigration violators and substantially increase federal money for investigating terrorism and protecting government buildings and computer networks.

But many other proposals died, were weakened or were never effectively put in effect. Airlines fought some tighter security regulations on the ground that they would cost too much. Banks opposed a crackdown on overseas money laundering. Computer companies succeeded in weakening efforts to restrict overseas sales of software that encrypts data. Educational institutions resisted the monitoring of foreign students.

And the National Rifle Association and civil liberties groups repeatedly worked together to defeat proposals to expand federal authority for wiretapping and other surveillance.

As he struggled last year to pass a broad anti terrorism bill, Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, delivered a warning that now sounds prophetic: that after another World Trade Center bombing "everybody will be excited about getting something done, but the time to get excited is now." Although Mr. Kyl's bill passed the Senate after the attack on the destroyer Cole last October, the legislation died in the House.

There is no guarantee that any of the legislation before Congress would have stopped the devastating Sept. 11 attacks or prevented the largest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor. In fact, many lawmakers still debate whether a number of the measures are warranted, would be effective or are constitutional.

"Up to now there's really been no constituency to move with any of this," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who co-sponsored Mr. Kyl's legislation. "There was no critical mass to move a bill, and I don't think anybody believed the depth to which these terrorists would go."

Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said today on "Face the Nation," "I don't think we can delay it any longer." But lawmakers are still fighting over the details of the package.

Congress has been warned in the past. Three national commissions reported that the nation and its intelligence, law enforcement and health care agencies were ill prepared to deal with domestic terrorist strikes.

When the National Commission on Terrorism made a sweeping series of anti terror recommendations last year, L. Paul Bremer, the commission's chairman, said: "We think there's a chance terrorists will try to stage a catastrophic event in the United States in the future. We're talking about something which will have tens of thousands of deaths."

But even as experts said that a growing terrorist threat required more powers and fewer constraints on government agencies, the suspicion of government itself was on the rise. Even President Bill Clinton proclaimed that "the era of big government" had come to an end.

And in a sign of the antigovernment sensibilities of the Republicans who took control of Congress in 1994, Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who has since left Congress, said during a House debate on anti terrorism legislation that while terrorism posed a severe threat, "There is a far greater fear in this country, and that is the fear of our own government."

Legislative attention to terrorism was episodic, rising in response to attacks like the 1993 trade center bombing. "What we lacked after 1993 was resolve as a nation," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who proposed sweeping antiterrorist legislation two weeks after that deadly explosion.

The antiterror bill President Clinton finally signed in 1996, a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, included new counter terrorism financing for the F.B.I, new provisions to turn immigrants away from the borders, a streamlined deportation process and a special deportation court empowered to use secret evidence.

But it did not include the primary enforcement tools the president had sought - including authority for federal agents to use wiretaps that follow a person instead of a phone, and for chemical identifiers in explosives and black powder.

Those measures were stripped in the House by a coalition of liberals, who remembered the domestic spying on civil rights groups and Vietnam War protesters, and conservatives, who said the deaths in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and at the Branch Davidian complex near Waco, Tex., showed the government could not be trusted. The National Rifle Association lobbied hard against those provisions, as did civil rights groups.

The civil rights groups also opposed similar efforts in later years to allow law enforcement to get a single court order to trace suspect telephone or computer communications across multiple networks or phone companies. They argued that the threshold standard for obtaining such orders was too loose. James X. Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit civil liberties group, said in an interview: "Our attitude was, there is a logic to this request. But given how the communications networks have grown, into e-mail, cell phones, voice mail, pagers, regular phones, other Internet applications, the idea that you can go from service provider to service provider without a judge ever actually asking what leads you to believe there's criminal conduct, we said that was too much."

Lobbying pressure also weakened efforts to place controls on the sensitive software used to keep computer data and telephone communications secret. For years, at least since coded files were found on the laptop computer of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the master mind of the 1993 trade center bombing, Louis J. Freeh, the former director of the F.B.I., and Representative Porter J. Goss of Florida, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, urged tight restrictions on exports of so-called encryption software on the grounds that it could fall into terrorist hands and complicate law enforcement. But they confronted a wall of opposition from the computer industry.

Computer industry lobbyists built Congressional support for lifting such restrictions. The industry, along with privacy advocates, argued that the pace of technology had outstripped government's ability to control it, and that American industry would suffer unfairly without access to foreign markets.

Last year, the Clinton administration issued Commerce Department regulations allowing export of such programs after a one-time review by the Defense Department, except to countries on the State Department's list of terrorist states. Sales to Europe do not require advance review.

Over time Congress doubled spending on counter terrorism programs, to about $12 billion this year. After the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, Congress year by year gave Mr. Clinton the new money he wanted for embassy security. But it refused his request for a guaranteed future stream of more than $3 billion for security through 2005.

That led Senator Joseph R. Biden, a Delaware Democrat, to warn that Congress risked repeating what it had done in the mid-1980's, after car bombings at embassies in Kuwait and Lebanon, when a government commission called for major new spending on embassy security. At first, Mr. Biden said, Congress responded with significant money, "but as the years passed, security became a second-order priority."

Over the last three years, three more commissions have made recommendations to Congress, including lifting restrictions on the C.I.A.'s use of unsavory infiltrators for counter terrorism, allowing the armed forces to lead the response to any major attack on American soil, and creating a cabinet-level homeland security agency. Mr. Bush recently named Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania to head such an agency.

Similar calls for such a high-ranking coordinator have been sounded repeatedly, but have died because of longstanding rivalries among competinglaw enforcement agencies.

"Unfortunately you have these big bureaucracies that have a lot of history, pride and political influence that resist change, particularly change that theyperceive as a loss of their power and influence," said Senator Bob Graham,

Democrat of Florida, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee onIntelligence. "Up until Sept. 11, they had been strong enough to preventefforts at restructuring the federal government."




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