Experts predict rush to impose more anti-terrorism laws

But Congress needs to be sure proposals are effective, they warn

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 13, 2001|By Thomas Healy | Thomas Healy,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Five years ago, in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress passed one of the toughest anti-terrorism laws in history. It was designed to make it easier to prevent terrorist acts and to punish the perpetrators.

Known as the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the law came under heavy criticism from lawyers who claimed it infringed on constitutional rights and provided little real protection against terrorism. Several provisions of the law have never been enforced, and in recent years there has been a movement to repeal some of its harsher elements.

But in the wake of this week's terrorist attacks, legal scholars said Congress was almost certain to strengthen, rather than weaken, anti-terrorism laws.

Just as the Oklahoma City bombing provided the impetus to enact measures that had languished for years in congressional committees, the recent attack will galvanize support for a new wave of anti-terrorism legislation, they predicted.

"There's going to be an immediate rush to legislate in this area, if for no other reason than to show that Congress is taking action," said Michael Scharf, a professor at New England School of Law and former counsel to the State Department's counter-terrorism bureau. "In a democracy, it takes a wake-up call to get things done. And although we've had wake-up calls before, we've fallen back asleep."

The government is most likely to impose measures that would improve airport safety, such as requiring more thorough searches of luggage and passengers, setting new qualifications for airport security officers, and placing federal agents on airplanes.

But lawmakers could also make it easier for the FBI and other federal agencies to initiate investigations against suspected terrorists and to use electronic surveillance, such as wiretapping.

Currently, FBI agents can monitor phones and computers of non-U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist activity, but only if they first obtain permission from the Attorney General.

Congress could strengthen the law by eliminating the need for the Attorney General's approval. It could also give the FBI authority to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens suspected of having terrorist links.

Another area likely to be targeted involves the possession and use of toxic biological materials. The law passed by Congress in 1996 makes it illegal to possess such materials with the intent to use them as weapons.

But because intent is often difficult to prove, some have encouraged Congress to outlaw the possession of biological toxins without a license.

Congress could also authorize the use of American military satellites to track the movements of suspected terrorists in this country. Currently, experts said, those satellites can only be used to spy on other countries.

But while the temptation to strengthen anti-terrorism laws will be strong, legal analysts said Congress must move cautiously before it enacts a sweeping set of measures. They said some proposals, which may sound appealing at first, might do little to further lawmakers' goals.

"So much of this is legal lashing out," said Barry Kellman, a professor at DePaul University College of Law who studies terrorism and weapons control. "We don't know what to do so we'll do anything."

As part of the 1996 law, for instance, Congress made it much more difficult for prisoners to appeal their convictions in federal courts. The goal was to speed the execution of murderers and terrorists such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

But most of those who were affected by the law were prisoners convicted of lesser crimes that had nothing to do with terrorism.

The law also targeted immigrants, by allowing the government to deport non-U.S. citizens with links to foreign terrorist organizations without having to reveal evidence of those ties. But as Georgetown University law professor David Cole notes, the Oklahoma City bombing was carried out by a U.S. citizen with no links to foreign terrorist groups.

"The 1996 law cut back on a whole range of rights for people who really had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing," said Cole.

Cole said that Congress has historically reacted to tragedies such as Tuesday's attack in ways that raise serious constitutional problems.

In 1919, the government rounded up 6,000 immigrants after a series of politically motivated bombings. And during World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps out of fear that they would undermine the American war effort.

"Given our history, we should be very careful about assessing which measures really provide security and which measures aren't going to provide security but will infringe on people's rights," Cole said. "We need to be concerned that we respond in a principled way that doesn't target people because of their political affiliation or religious and ethnic identity."

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