Bipartisan Anti-Terrorism Bill Abandoned in House, Civil Liberties Protections Sacrificed to Administration Pressure

Provisions likely to become law will require intensive monitoring by civil liberties groups, says PFAW's Neas

Bipartisan anti-terrorism legislation supported by a unanimous House Judiciary Committee was jettisoned by congressional leaders today in order to push through a bill that abandons many civil liberties protections agreed to by committee members of both parties. The bill that passed the House today closely mirrors legislation that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate on Thursday. People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas criticized both the substance of the House legislation and the abuse of democratic process that brought it to the floor.

"The House Judiciary Committee's effort to responsibly balance national security and civil liberties concerns was a model of bipartisan cooperation," said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. "Today's action made a mockery of that effort."

The new bill, railroaded onto the floor of the House this afternoon in a series of close partisan votes, does not contain many of the civil liberties protections that Judiciary Committee members had embraced after public hearings. Civil liberties advocates in both parties worked hard to make important improvements in the dangerously sweeping legislation initially proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Neas said that while the current bill contains a number of improvements over Ashcroft's initial proposals, it still creates the potential for serious violations of Americans' civil liberties. Neas called a partial five-year sunset provision contained in the House legislation "disappointingly narrow," but said that "nevertheless, having a sunset provision in the final legislation is vital to providing some check on potential abuse."

"People For the American Way and other civil liberties advocates will intensively monitor the implementation of these new measures," said Neas. "We will not hesitate to seek congressional action even before the five-year sunset provision if there is evidence of abuse."

"Attorney General Ashcroft's radical legislation and his demand for immediate congressional passage provoked strong concerns than spanned the left-right spectrum within Congress and the advocacy community," said Neas. "It was a victory for the democratic process that Congress insisted on public hearings, and that so many people tried to shape effective anti-terrorism legislation while addressing the serious civil liberties problems raised by the administration's proposals."

"It is unfortunate that under pressure from the administration, House leaders abandoned much of that work," Neas said.

People For the American Way had called for public hearings on the administration's legislation, and urged members of Congress to pass legislation that adhered to three basic principles:

Language should be carefully crafted in order to preserve constitutional liberties and to prevent the creation of overly broad powers that could lead to abuse.

Meaningful judicial review and oversight should not be short-circuited.

Anti-terrorism laws should be narrowly tailored to that purpose.
Neas said the legislation passed by the House today fails to meet these standards in a number of ways, including expansion of government ability to carry out secret searches, lack of privacy protections regarding information obtained in investigations, and the fact that many of the new police powers extend well beyond efforts to combat terrorism.

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