WASHINGTON, D.C. – A congressional bill regarding online surveillance that is scheduled to be voted upon today was unexpectedly delayed Monday afternoon by an influential politician, pushing back passage of the antiterrorism bill by at least a week.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., chairman of the Houses Committee on the Judiciary, had planned to have his committee vote on the bill crafted by the Department of Justice on Tuesday, Sept. 25, but decided to push it back until next week after both Republicans and Democrats on the committee complained that the schedule was far too accelerated.
“We have to draw the line. We cannot be rushed into allowing this tragic moment to cause us to support a violation of privacy and the Constitution,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. “This is dangerous.”
The Department of Justice wants to expand its wiretapping capabilities to address, among other things, the claim that “technology has dramatically outpaced our statutes,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said at the crowded hearing. “Each day that so passes [without changes in law] is a day terrorists have an advantage.”
But Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said: “These new changes in technology should not cause us to totally change our laws.”
Among other things, the bill would give authorities the ability to snoop on e-mail communications and Web surfing more easily and with greater stealth. It would also permit authorities more flexibility in using relatively loose rules for collecting foreign intelligence for the pursuit of domestic intelligence.
Civil liberties advocates across the political spectrum formed a coalition called In Defense of Freedom last week, aimed at stopping Congress from passing legislation that would erode civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.
The legislation appeared to have a greater chance of swift passage in the House of Representatives than in the Senate, but significant opposition voiced during the hearing made its prospects in the House unclear. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is holding his first hearing on the package today. Leahy has said that his committee will not rush the legislation through, and that it could take weeks for it to be voted upon.
The document is clearly in a state of flux. During Mondays hearing, several issues codified in last weeks version of the bill had been excised, though many were not aware of the changes. Witnesses testifying against pieces of last weeks version were notified about the changes in the middle of their testimonies.
Defending the proposal, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff said it does not upset the balance between privacy and security. Instead, the bill simply makes the sprawling network of jurisdictions and laws surrounding surveillance “more efficient and more streamlined.”