WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives today is expected to sign-off on an amended version of a sweeping anti-terrorism proposal crafted by the U.S. Department of Justice, but the bill faces stiffer opposition in the Senate.
The Bush administration is pushing Congress hard to pass the package, which would relax surveillance laws to make it easier for law enforcement to track terrorists through cyberspace and in the real world.
Negotiations between the Senate and the administration slowed down Tuesday after an administration change-of-heart about a wiretapping provision, a source said.
"We had largely concluded the negotiations Thursday but the administration inexplicably has changed its mind on a key provision of the agreement," said a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer who wished to remain anonymous. "Right now, we are still working on a few sticking points … Its a question of, Do we want to compromise our civil liberties? "
The provision in question deals with how law enforcement agencies go about notifying citizens about searches that have been conducted on their property, both online and offline, as well as the degree to which they can share harvested information. The original Department of Justice proposal asked Congress to let authorities get search warrants and conduct searches without notifying the suspects, and then share the information with agencies not involved with law enforcement.
The provision was controversial with civil liberties groups and frowned upon by some members of the Judiciary Committee, including committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. During negotiations, the administration agreed to scale back the scope of the provision by requiring authorities to notify suspects who have had search warrants issued only after the search has been done, the source said. Now, suspects are usually notified of searches just before or as they are being performed. In addition, information sharing would be permitted only within law enforcement agencies.
But the administration has backed away from those concessions, the source said, and is now pushing again for the broader language in its formal proposal.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings today exploring the balance between civil liberties and security. A Judiciary Committee spokesperson said Leahy has not yet scheduled a mark-up on the departments anti-terrorism proposal.
Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed for nearly immediate action on the bill after it was introduced two weeks ago, but a eclectic coalition of left-oriented civil liberties organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, and conservative organizations like Phyllis Schlaflys Eagle Forum, quickly formed to fight the administrations proposal. Both sides argue the proposal erodes civil liberties and smacks too much of Big Brother.
Tuesday, Ashcroft said he was "deeply concerned" about the pace of progress over the bill in Congress.
In a news conference Tuesday, Jim Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, characterized the administrations compromises on the bill to date as "relatively small," saying that there are "very major issues that need to be resolved before it can be said that this legislation is not fundamentally opening up the Net and other communications to government interception in a way that has never been permitted before."
If the House of Representatives passes the bill today, the focus will then shift entirely on the Senate Judiciary Committees work. A committee spokesperson said Leahy wants to pass a bill through his committee and through the Senate as quickly as possible. After that, it will be up to congressional leaders to hammer out any compromises between the House and Senate bills, and send something to President Bushs desk.