Senate OKs anti-terror, airport security measures

Bills would federalize screening at airports, give police broad new powers

War On Terrorism : The Nation

October 12, 2001|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A month to the day after hijackers turned commercial airliners into lethal weapons, the Senate moved to tighten airport security and give police sweeping new powers to help track down terrorists.

By a vote of 100-0, the Senate agreed after days of delaying tactics to hire thousands of new federal workers to screen passengers and baggage at airport gates, replacing the contract employees retained by airlines who have been doing these jobs for years.

"We knew we were going to have to be bipartisan if we were going to get any kind of real security in the airports and air travel in this country," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat who chairs the Commerce Committee.

Moving with a new urgency because of the 30-day anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Senate also voted 96-1 shortly before midnight to grant federal authorities broad new powers to use computer and electronic surveillance to investigate suspected terrorists.

The lone opponent was Sen. Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, who complained that it does not contain enough safeguards to protect innocent Americans from government snooping.

Earlier, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told colleagues he had "misgivings" about the sweep of the counterterrorism measure. But he added: "I have done my best to strike a reasonable balance between the need to address the threat of terrorism ... and the need to protect our constitutional freedoms."

The House is expected to take up a similar anti-terrorism measure today.

The new police powers contained in the Senate bill would make it easier for federal investigators to obtain nationwide court orders and allow them to do "roving" wiretaps on cell phones as callers switch numbers. Investigators would be able to seize voice mail, obtain credit card information from Internet service providers, monitor e-mail records, and gain access to wiretap and grand jury information from state criminal proceedings.

The counterterrorism bill also contains a section on money laundering, which gives the secretary of the Treasury greater power to require banks to supply records and other information that could be used to track down terrorists and others trying to hide assets for criminal purposes.

The money trail has been called vital to identifying those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. But the system is easy to abuse, senators said.

"We are aware of the cracks inside the Western financial system, and we are sealing up those cracks," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Banking Committee that crafted the legislation.

The airline security bill faces stiff resistance in the House, where some Republican leaders object to expansion of the federal bureaucracy. President Bush has expressed "serious concerns" about federalizing the passenger and baggage screeners, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Bush is concerned that the requirement that federal workers replace the private employees now being used would cause "significant difficulties" during the transition period that could reduce the government's ability to ensure that qualified screeners are on the job in all locations at all times, Fleischer said.

In other words, the Bush administration worries that many workers will walk off the job because they know that federal employees will soon replace them.

The airline bill formalizes many of the security measures Bush has begun to put in place on his own since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Those changes provide for strengthened cockpit doors, armed federal marshals on nearly every domestic flight, increased anti-hijack training for flight crews, and federal police to secure airport perimeters.

Under the bill, passengers would pick up the tab for some increased security costs through a $2.50-per-ticket fee.

Supporters of the bill said their main goal was to reassure Americans that it is safe to fly. They hope to boost air travel to its previous level of 9 million passengers per week. Shortly after the attacks, air travel dropped by almost half, but has steadily increased, to about 7 million passengers last week.

"It's all about confidence," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "The airline industry desperately needs that cushion of confidence that this legislation will offer."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, said the bill "will close the loopholes that the terrorists found in our airport system."

Passage of the bill came after the Senate had blocked a move by Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan to include in the bill a $1.9 billion proposal that would have given laid-off airline and aviation workers additional jobless benefits and help with health insurance.

Since the attacks, the nation's six largest carriers have announced plans to lay off or fire nearly 100,000 workers. Carnahan estimated that 44,000 more people also have lost jobs.

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