Fearful that Congress may bypass usual legislative procedures in enacting broad new police powers this week in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, civil liberties groups on Tuesday called for lawmakers to act thoughtfully and with full deliberation.
Heeding the privacy advocates earlier concerns about the Bush Administrations request for rapid passage of an anti-terrorism bill – which includes expanded surveillance powers -- the judiciary panel of the House of Representatives last week spent six hours debating and approving a modified version of the legislation. The bill was slated for a vote by the House this week, but according to civil rights activists, it may be discarded as leaders in both chambers consider bringing a more favorable version to the Administration to a vote.
"They want to ram it down the Houses throat and that would be the end of it," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "It is not the way to deal with civil liberties to go and bypass a mark-up and go and bypass conferencing these bills."
The Senate, which initially tacked expanded surveillance powers to a spending bill passed Sept. 13, has given the anti-terrorism legislation only minimal deliberation, foregoing an opportunity by the chambers judiciary committee to approve it. The version under consideration closely resembles the Administrations proposals.
"This is playing politics with what happened at the [World] Trade Center and its playing politics with our civil liberties," Berman told reporters today.
Members of the House judiciary panel, which unanimously passed the modified bill last week, are not pleased with the alleged efforts by the leadership to ignore their efforts, according to a committee staffer. "I dont think [Committee Chairman James] Sensenbrenner is going to go quietly," the staffer said, adding that committee members were preparing a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Tuesday afternoon.
The Department of Justice is pressing Congress to move quickly on the legislation while warning of heightened threat of further terrorist attacks.
Among the proposals that worry privacy advocates are provisions that would expand the amount of information law enforcement could obtain from e-mail and Internet communications without judicial review; allow the interception of computer trespasser communications without a court order; expand the use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Acts secret searches and wiretaps to criminal investigations; allow roving wiretaps in FISA cases without limiting the tap to the pone or computer being used by the subject.