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Going Backwards: Anti-Terrorist Bill Passes to Groups Dismay


26 October 2001

Washington - Acting within 24 hours of the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate approved Thursday sweeping anti- terrorism legislation that civil liberties groups said could violate the Constitution and basic rights.

The 98-1 vote (Voting nay - Russ Feingold (D-WI) ) came amid growing concern about anthrax attacks against lawmakers and other Washington officials through the mail. The House passed the same measure by 357-66 Wednesday.

President George W. Bush, who has pressed Congress over the last two weeks to take swift action, is expected to sign the package into law Friday.

Bush got virtually all but the most draconian measures he had included in the anti-terrorism bill, which he submitted to Congress in the aftermath of Sep. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The bill greatly expands federal agencies' authority to conduct surveillance and wiretapping operations and secret searches against terrorist suspects while reducing judicial oversight.

The bill also imposes much stronger penalties on those who harbor or finance terrorists and greatly reduces the due-process rights and recourse to judicial review of immigrants suspected of terrorism. For example, suspect immigrants could be held for up to seven days before being allowed to appeal to a judge.

Other controversial measures include giving the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director authority to identify priority targets for intelligence surveillance within the United States, a function from which the CIA previously was barred, and broadening the definition of “domestic terrorism” in a way that could subject people engaged in political protest to wiretapping and even criminal prosecution.

The package also greatly strengthens existing laws against money laundering and adds terrorism, fraud, corruption, and smuggling to the list of offenses subject to federal money-laundering laws.

Passage of the new law, which follows five weeks of intense debate and negotiation, comes as other countries take similar action in the wake of last month's attacks. The governments of Canada and India, for example, have tabled far- reaching measures that international and local human rights and civil liberties groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have warned will expand the powers of the state at the expense of judicial oversight and key democratic freedoms. The European Union (EU) also is considering legislation that could greatly reduce the rights of immigrants, in particular.

The groups also have voiced strong concerns about the U.S. legislation, particularly as regards its effects on non-citizens. HRW and the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) have argued that the bill effectively permits the Justice Department to detain non-citizens indefinitely if they cannot be deported and so long as it believes the suspect represents a threat to national security.

“Non-citizens no less than citizens have a right to freedom from arbitrary or indefinite administrative detention,” said HRW director Kenneth Roth. “As the U.S. defends itself from terrorism, it must also strengthen its defense of the freedoms that are the hallmark of the country.”

Even without the new bill, civil liberties groups have grown increasingly concerned about the continued detention by federal authorities of almost one thousand people - almost all non-citizen Muslims - in connection with the Sep. 11 attacks. Most are being held either as “material witnesses” or on minor immigration offenses.

On Wednesday, Amnesty voiced concern about the punitive conditions under which many of these people were being held and questioned whether their rights to legal representation and full due process were being fully respected. One of the detainees, a Pakistani who had overstayed his visa, died of an apparent heart ailment in jail earlier this week after being held for more than a month.

“It just underscores our concern that there needs to be more openness and transparency about this process,” said Jeanne Butterfield, head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “We've been clamoring for information about who is being detained and do they have access to counsel. But I can't get anything.” Many of the more controversial provisions of the new law, particularly those affecting immigrants' rights, are expected to be challenged in the courts, according to Nancy Chang, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

“As constitutional challenges to the legislation wind their way through the courts, the judiciary will be presented with the choice of upholding the Constitution or acquiescing in its surrender,” she said.

One plaintiff is certain to be the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which expressed “deep disappointment” both with the content of the legislation and the way it was moved through Congress.

Noting that the final version of the bill, which replaced another version that emerged from protracted negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the House, was sent to the floor at a time when House offices were closed off due to the anthrax scare, it described the expedited vote as “deeply flawed and an offense to the thoughtful legislative process necessary to protect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

Still, lawmakers with strong civil liberties records who voted for the bill said they had extracted important concessions from the administration, which had originally requested, for example, that immigrant suspects be detained indefinitely without any judicial review.

In addition, they succeeded in imposing a “sunset clause” on many of the more controversial measures extending the surveillance powers of the federal government. While the administration had asked that these powers be made permanent, under the bill passed Thursday, they will expire after four years unless Congress votes to extend them.

“In provision after provision, we added safeguards that were missing from the administration's plan,” declared Senator Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman. “We have done our utmost to protect Americans against abuse of these new law enforcement tools.”

Jim Lobe.
Published by the Inter Press Service.
2001 IPS-Inter Press Service.



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