Bush drive for tougher terror laws picks up

Critics worry measures will weaken civil liberties

August 19, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A federal court's rejection of President Bush's NSA surveillance program, in the wake of the London bomb plot, is adding momentum to the administration's push for congressional approval of tough counterterrorism proposals, including authorizing warrantless wiretapping of terrorism suspects and restricting detainee rights.

Bush's advisers and allies argue that passage of a measure that explicitly authorizes the NSA program would answer key elements of Thursday's ruling, which struck down the operation in part because it had never been approved by lawmakers. At the same time, the disrupted London plot is fueling another message: that tough policies in dealing with terrorism suspects are necessary to combat the continuing threat of terrorism.

The drive for congressional action on such measures could pose a difficult election-year dilemma for Democrats and a few Republicans who regard Bush's proposals as a threat to fundamental rights, but fear that opposing them could invite charges of being soft on terrorism.

Bush yesterday accused those who oppose the NSA program of being blind to terrorism threats, a charge Republican officials have encouraged congressional candidates to emphasize after the foiled London plot.

"Those who herald this decision simply do not understand the nature of the world in which we live," Bush said at Camp David yesterday, adding that he disagreed "strongly" with the ruling.

Citing last week's plot, Bush added, "This country of ours is at war, and we must give those whose responsibility it is to protect the United States the tools necessary to protect this country in a time of war."

Democrats and civil liberties groups hailed the NSA decision, calling it a rebuke to the legal arguments Bush has used to justify his terrorism policies. But some strategists now see a greater likelihood that Bush will try this fall to win approval of a catchall counterterrorism bill.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales this week began a review of U.S. and British anti-terror laws to determine whether changes are needed. But White House spokesman Tony Snow discouraged the notion that Bush's team is scrambling to take advantage of the latest plot to push through legislative changes.

The measures pending on Capitol Hill have been shaped by "an administration that thinks about this stuff every day," he said.

In meetings with his homeland security and counterterrorism advisers this week, "there was discussion about some of those reforms, but it was not, `Boy, we've got work to do,' " Snow said.

Still, some Republican strategists and terrorism analysts said the ruling, coming after last week's foiled plot, could influence debate over a deal Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania cut with Vice President Dick Cheney to explicitly authorize the NSA program, as well as negotiations over legislation to loosen restrictions on the treatment of terrorism suspects.

Robert A. Levy, a legal analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, said Congress is "ever more motivated, as a result of the U.K. incident, to do something about the NSA. The same is true about the detainee issue. We don't know everything that Bush wants, but it does seem to me that the impetus will be for even greater requests from the administration."

Bush and his team have been guilty of "some political opportunism," Levy said, timing some of their requests for broader counterterrorism powers to follow ominous news developments like those last week. But in general, he added, "that's a desirable development," forcing Congress to weigh in on important questions of wartime powers.

"The actions in London certainly give pause to Congress to look at that legislation with eyes open to the ongoing threat," said Glenn Sulmasy, an associate law professor at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Sulmasy said Congress would now be more likely to endorse the Specter deal that would sanction the NSA spying program and subject it to some congressional oversight.

But he said the chances are not as good that lawmakers will come to a quick agreement to embrace Bush's proposal to create military-style commissions that would give terror suspects fewer civil liberties protections than in civilian criminal proceedings.

Following a July Supreme Court ruling invalidating its wartime tribunals to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the administration is pushing Congress to accept new prosecution policies that could allow coerced confessions and bar defendants from access to classified evidence. The proposal also would eliminate some protections in the War Crimes Act against humiliating and degrading treatment of prisoners, according to several news reports.

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