The U.S. Senate is poised to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to give the government greater powers in prosecuting “lone wolf” terrorists – ones not associated with another country or international terrorist organization – which were previously off limits to prosecutors.
“Without this legislation, if another incident like Moussaui occurred today, we wouldn’t be able to prosecute him under the FISA statute,” said Margarita Tapia, spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “This legislation fixes a significant hole.”
Controversy over the bill, which was passed unanimously by the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, began when discussion commenced over a proposed amendment that would remove the sunset clause – which expires the bill in December 2005 – from the USA PATRIOT Act. The act, passed after Sept. 11, 2001 to ease the apprehension of terrorists, gives government agencies sweeping powers. This initiative is being taken by Republicans in response to Democratic attempts to change the bill.
“If the Democrats want to amend the bill, then we will offer an equal number of amendments to fix the legislation,” Tapia said. “The director of the FBI and the attorney general appeared in front of the Judiciary committee in March and expressed their strong support for this bill.”
This has many legislators worried about the preservation of civil liberties.
“The PATRIOT Act is based on (Attorney General John) Ashcroft’s theory that we have to compromise the Constitution, our civil liberties and due process to fight terrorism,” said U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), ranking member of the House Judiciary committee. “It’s a bad bill. It does a lot of bad things. … I don’t have anything I can think of to commend the PATRIOT Act.”
Many are concerned about how the act allows Department of Homeland Security officials to eavesdrop by wire-tap and the U.S. attorney general to forbid one’s family, friends and lawyers from attending a deportation hearing.
But House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said the act is intended for a purpose and deserves review, but not necessarily dismissal.
“All the members tried to strike a balance on this by getting rid of unnecessary impediments to preventing and prosecuting terrorist acts,” said Jeff Langren, spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee. “Mr. Sensenbrenner wants to make sure that it is effectively working to prevent terrorism as it was intended by Congress.”
Even some Republicans are uncomfortable with the proposition.
“I’m not quite sure what the rush is to do it right now in April 2003,” said U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Holland). “I personally haven’t reached a conclusion as to whether what we’re doing now works or not.”