The Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives voted 36-0 to send sweeping antiterrorism legislation to the House floor.
The drafted legislation, known as the Patriot (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act, would expand the government's ability to monitor communications, including e-mail and cell phone conversations, and share that information among agencies. Committee members said Wednesday they expect it to draw broad bipartisan backing in the full House.
The bill underwent last-minute amendments and debate for more than five hours Wednesday, pausing only for a 30-minute break as top committee members attended a closed meeting with government officials about the bill.
The bill now will proceed to the full House and is scheduled to go up for a vote by the end of the week, according to F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr., a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the committee.
"Today we meet with one purpose in mind: to provide law enforcement agencies with the appropriate tools to prevent" this kind of terrorism from ever happening again, Sensenbrenner said during the committee debate. "(This bill) will give law enforcement new weapons to fight a new kind of war."
Some of those new tools include allowing law enforcement to wiretap a variety of communications, from electronic communications to voice mail, without the need for multiple court orders, and allowing a court order to extend beyond the jurisdiction in which it was granted. It also allows law enforcers to track suspected terrorists as they navigate the Internet.
The bill passed on by the committee Wednesday is the House version of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft on Sept. 24. [See, "Ashcroft briefs House on antiterrorism bill," Sept. 24.] It has gained bipartisan backing after lawmakers toned down some of Ashcroft's more controversial proposals. The Senate Judiciary is currently drafting its own version of the ATA.
Changes in the House bill include an expiration date, or "sunset," added to a number of provisions in the Patriot Act so that they would expire on Dec. 31, 2003. The revised House bill also limits to seven days the amount of time the government can detain non-U.S. citizens who are suspected as a security risk. Ashcroft had asked for an unlimited power of detention.
"As much as I want to help Attorney General John Ashcroft do his job, it would be irresponsible to give him a blank check," said John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan.
Conyers, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed some concerns over whether government might abuse the wide-reaching new powers. Conyers cited a number of historical instances in which the U.S. government abused its powers during times of war, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the McCarthy Era in the 1950s, during the Cold War, in which the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted alleged communists in the U.S.
"I wish that I could be confident that" the government would not abuse its powers, "but history has proven otherwise, regardless of what political party was in office," Conyers said. "With these new powers must come additional accountability."
To address the issue of accountability, the House Judiciary Committee has proposed in the bill to increase penalties for government agencies and officials who violate surveillance laws, and create a new committee in the Department of Justice to monitor criminal surveillance.
The Bush administration has pushed fervently to pass extended policing powers through Congress following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Ashcroft has made several attempts to encourage Congress swiftly to pass new antiterrorism bills into law, citing the immediate need for electronic tools to fight terrorism.
The Patriot Act was introduced by Sensenbrenner and Conyers and is being crafted alongside a similar bill in the Senate, which Sensenbrenner Wednesday called "mysterious," as it has yet to be discussed outside of confidential Senate meetings and internal documents. According to media reports, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said Wednesday that the Senate expects its bill to reach the floor by early next week.
Privacy advocates have reacted strongly to the antiterrorism bills, arguing that civil liberties are at stake. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) sent a letter to Congress Tuesday urging lawmakers not to limit civil liberties in its attempt to investigate terrorists. EPIC has focused specifically on computer and communication monitoring.
"Law enforcement and intelligence agencies already possess broad authority to conduct investigations of suspected terrorist activity," the letter read. "Further expansions of surveillance authority will invariably impose a cost on the privacy rights of Americans."
David L. Sobel, general counsel for EPIC and one of the authors of the letter, said in an interview Wednesday that even the amended House version doesn't fully address EPIC's concerns.
"It eliminates some of the most blatant constitutional problems, but it certainly doesn't eliminate all of them," Sobel said. "There remain many very problematic provisions, particularly those that apply to the Internet."
One such worry that EPIC and other groups have raised has to do with increasing the use of the government's Carnivore e-mail surveillance technology, a system that monitors Internet communication going in and out of an Internet service provider's network. EPIC wrote in its letter Tuesday that Congress should not allow the use of Carnivore until the Department of Justice (DOJ) makes changes to Carnivore that were recommended by an independent review team.
"This for the first time would authorize the use of Carnivore, but it doesn't address any of the constitutional problems that the use of Carnivore raises," Sobel said. "When it's installed at an ISP (Internet service provider), it gives law enforcement access not only to communications of persons named in a court order, but also any name in that ISP."
Another civil liberties group, the Center for Technology and Democracy, has also raised concerns that extending the police powers limits personal privacy. [See "CDT: Antiterrorism bill threatens online privacy," Oct. 2.]
More information on the House Judiciary Committee can be found at http://www.house.gov/judiciary/. The Senate is online at http://www.senate.gov. EPIC, in Washington, can be reached at +1-202-483-1140, or on the Web at http://www.epic.org/.