WASHINGTON, D.C.– A prominent senator has been toiling to cobble together legislation that would limit the degree to which the hunt for terrorists could infringe on Americans civil liberties, as the U.S. Department of Justice prepares to unveil a wish-list of antiterrorism measures that civil libertarians expect will give authorities sweeping new Internet wiretapping and cybersurveillance powers.
Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, could release at least some of his amendments by the end of the week, said spokesman David Carle.
In a speech earlier this week, Attorney General John Ashcroft urged Congress to pass a comprehensive antiterrorism bill by Friday. Carle said Leahy is “working as rapidly as humanly possible” on proposals to temper the Aschcroft proposal, but added that “its a mistake to set artificial deadlines on this legislation, particularly with the delicate balance between civil liberties and law enforcement” under enormous pressure to shift.
The Wall Street Journal reported today that the Department of Justice is readying a sweeping legislative plan, called the “Mobilization Against Terrorism Act,” which will include sections on intelligence, immigration, corporate records, U.S. cooperation with foreign governments and tax disclosures. Other Capitol Hill sources said the document could have as many as 40 sections and feature new language on habeas corpus rights and the Carnivore surveillance system.
The Senate has already passed one antiterrorism amendment to the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill that expands the wiretapping and cybersurveillance powers of law enforcement officers.
Civil liberties advocates, meanwhile, are laboring to persuade lawmakers to slow down. They are anxious about the pending Department of Justice proposals and are hearing constantly that different senators are coming up with their own amendments to attach to the appropriations bill.
In an astonishing gesture of rapprochement demonstrating the gravity of the Capitol Hill situation, the leaders of two civil liberties groups, who have long been sharply at odds and have rarely hesitated to toss insults at each other, are now working together.
The Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Privacy and Information Center have joined with a disparate collection of other civil liberties groups to form the Defense of Freedom at a Time of Crisis Coalition. The directors of the two organizations, CDTs Jerry Berman and EPICs Marc Rotenberg, were even meeting for breakfast Wednesday morning. Before the post-terrorism push for legislation on Capitol Hill that could curb civil liberties, Berman and Rotenberg would not even speak to each other, much less breakfast together.