Finding Balance between Civil Rights and Safety Critics Say Bill in Congress Doesn't Address Causes of Terrorism

Article excerpt

TWO months after the Oklahoma City bombing, the antiterrorism legislation it spawned is still wending through Congress. While seen by some as long-overdue, lawmakers of both political parties and civil liberties groups remain deeply disturbed about treading on the Constitution.

Fears of running roughshod over civil rights, such as free speech, and giving Washington too much power to peer into citizens' private lives, took center stage yesterday as the House Judiciary Committee debated the final version of antiterrorism legislation it will send to the full House.

"I'm concerned that law-enforcement agencies might use new powers to go on fishing expeditions to look at people who hold unpopular views," says Rep. Steven Schiff (R) of New Mexico.

Gregory Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union was more explicit in legislative hearings Monday. "The bill will be effective in making us less free," he says. "It is not at all clear that it will make us safer."

Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, the committee chairman and the bill's sponsor, defended the measure as embodying a balance between individual rights and the need to protect citizens. "This legislation is not a knee-jerk reaction or wild-eyed approach," he says.

Some experts have concerns beyond those involving civil liberties. They doubt new measures can be effectively formulated until the government conducts a detailed study of the terrorist threats facing the US and political approaches for resolving their root causes.

"We need a review of the problem, not just throwing more money and more law enforcement at it," says Roy Godson, head of the Washington-based National Strategic Information Center and a professor of national security studies.

Like legislation passed June 7 by the Senate, the House bill incorporates many of the antiterrorism measures proposed by President Clinton after the April 19 bombing. The House bill would authorize the hiring of 1,000 new federal antiterrorism personnel and create an FBI-run Domestic Counterterrorism Center to coordinate information on domestic and foreign terrorism.

The bill would also allow investigators broader access to personal records, such as credit card bills, and give the federal government new investigative powers, including greater access to wire-taps. …