Bombing Prompts Congressional Debate

Article excerpt

Hearings held in late April and early May by both houses of Congress explored possible legislation to detect and prevent terrorism. Reacting to the bombing in Oklahoma City, lawmakers considered proposals that would legalize measures ranging from deporting known foreign terrorists to expanding FBI powers to include the investigation of terrorist groups.

While members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Crime Subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary discussed the details of several antiterrorism bills, legislators and witnesses faced the same dilemma: how to balance constitutional fights with law enforcement needs.

The Senate committee considered the language of three separate proposals, each of which addresses different aspects of the terrorist threat. The Omnibus Counterterrorism Act (S. 390), introduced by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) in February on behalf of the president, makes certain crimes of international terrorism a federal offense, allows those charged with such crimes to be automatically detained prior to trial, and permits electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists. The bill outlaws contributions to groups deemed terrorist organizations by the president.

Under the bill, noncitizens involved in terrorist acts would be quickly deported. S. 390 also establishes a special court, composed of five appointed district court judges, to hear deportation cases.

The administration has also announced additional initiatives that will be considered as separate legislation. Among the new initiatives was a request for less stringent restrictions on the government's use of electronic surveillance, mandatory marking of standard explosive devices to make them easier to trace, and the addition of 1,000 new federal law enforcement staff members - more than 700 of whom would be allocated to the FBI. These persons would serve as counterintelligence agents, surveillance specialists, counterterrorism experts, scientists, and digital encryption and software experts.

A proposed new counterterrorism commission under the auspices of the FBI would oversee antiterrorism initiatives and provide a single point of reference for all law enforcement officials investigating such activities.

The president has also requested that law enforcement agents be given easier access to financial and credit reports in international terrorism cases and that they be given easier access to information from hotels, motels, common carriers, storage companies, and vehicle rental facilities in domestic terrorism cases.

After the Senate hearing, Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (RUT) introduced S. 735, the Comprehensive Terrorism Prevention Act. While the bill contains many of the same provisions covered in H.R. 390, it also extends penalties for terrorism, prohibits trade to countries that either aid or provide military equipment to terrorist states, eases restrictions on assistance to antiterrorism causes in foreign countries, and prohibits the transfer to terrorist states of technology that could be used for terrorist activities.

In a statement before the House subcommittee, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced his intentions to introduce another related bill. According to Hyde, the bill may echo some of the issues included in H.R. 390 but will also include provisions to restrict the sale of toxic materials and authorize the death penalty for those responsible for the death of any federal official.

Members of both the House and Senate addressed the controversial issue of privacy and constitutional liberties. Legislators expressed concerns over rights to privacy and free speech when considering measures that would increase the power of the FBI to conduct covert surveillance and infiltrate terrorist groups. According to administration officials Louis Freeh, director of the FBI, and Jamie Gorelick, deputy attorney general, the proposed bills would not impinge on the civil liberties of private citizens "The choice between safety and freedom is a false one," says Gorelick. …