The proposed bill to fight terrorism that the US Attorney General presented to Congress on Monday is intended to arm the country's intelligence community with updated technology and communications methods, in an attempt to prevent or thwart future attacks. Yet the controversial nature of many of this act's proposals, along with some friction among members of Congress regarding adequate time for debate, has already delayed the process of turning the proposal into legislation.
Attorney General John Ashcroft outlined the five main parts of his proposal, called the Mobilization Against Terrorism Act, to the House of Representatives' Committee on the Judiciary, which has oversight on issues related to the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Ashcroft told the committee that current US law is not adequate to protect American citizens in the shadow of terrorist threats, and in areas related to technology the law is particularly out of date.
"Technology has dramatically outpaced our statutes," he said.
Ashcroft's proposal seeks not only to update technology used in intelligence gathering but also to modify the laws surrounding the use of that technology. Though he offered few specifics, he did give one example related to wiretapping. Under current law, an investigator must obtain authorisation to wiretap a suspect based on a specific phone associated with that person. But because mobile phones have become a popular means of communication, and with what Ashcroft called "disposable cell phones" entering the market, a wiretapped device could be easily discarded, hampering the investigation. The act proposes that investigators obtain authorization to wiretap a person, not a specific phone.
"We're not asking the law to expand, just to grow as technology grows," Ashcroft said, emphasizing that the act was developed with the preservation of American civil liberties in mind.
However, a number of representatives took issue with what they perceived to be potential violations of constitutional rights in the proposal.
For example, one congressman noted that surveillance of e-mail could open the door for civil liberty violations more so than tapping of telephone communication. If an email message's subject line and body text information were examined as well as the sender and recipient's e-mail addresses, investigators could be crossing the line into privacy violations, said Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia. Michael Chertoff, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's criminal division, said that such information would not be reviewed, as far as he knew.
Another representative expressed concern that the Justice Department is using this opportunity to put in place capabilities it has pushed for in the past. One example is to expand the use of Carnivore, a system that monitors Internet communication going in and out of an Internet service provider's network, said Bob Barr, a Republican from Georgia.
Ashcroft and others in the Bush administration have been pushing for swift enactment of laws related to terrorism, arguing existing law is inadequate and the country remains at risk. "The American people don't have the luxury of infinite time," Ashcroft told the committee. "Terrorism is a clear and present danger to America today."
Yet many representatives resented having to come to agreement on Ashcroft's proposal so quickly. A draft was given to committee members last Wednesday, and the chairman of the committee had scheduled a session to turn the proposal into legislation for September 25. Despite the urgency of the situation, they insisted the proposal must be well vetted for possible violations of civil liberties.
"Hasty considerations in emergencies often lead to regret," said Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York.
Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, conceded and rescheduled the session for some time next week.