Ashcroft Presents Anti-Terrorism Plan to Congress

Lawmakers Promise Swift Action, Disagree on Extent of Measures

By John Lancaster and Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writers

Thursday, September 20, 2001

Appealing for urgent action in the face of an undiminished terrorist threat, the Bush administration yesterday presented Congress with its proposed anti-terrorism package as lawmakers vowed to continue their bipartisan push for a swift response to last week's air assaults on New York and Washington.

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft met with key Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol yesterday afternoon to discuss the measures, which would greatly enhance the government's ability to conduct domestic surveillance and keep suspected terrorists from entering the country.

After the meeting, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the proposals had been well received and promised to work through the weekend with the aim of producing a mutually acceptable bill by the time his panel holds hearings on the matter next Tuesday.

Leahy cautioned, however, that Congress would not rubber-stamp the anti-terrorism proposals, which have already sparked concern among civil liberties groups and others who fear the measures outlined in Ashcroft's 21-page document would undermine the Constitution, especially with regard to immigrants' rights.

"If the Constitution is shredded, the terrorists win," Leahy told reporters after the meeting. "We want to do this carefully."

Despite such concerns, Leahy indicated that Congress could send the anti-terrorism measure to President Bush within a few weeks -- an expedited schedule that reflects the continuing sense of national emergency that has gripped the Capitol since the morning of Sept. 11. Besides the anti-terrorism package, lawmakers are scrambling to put together a multibillion-dollar bailout for the nation's airlines -- most of which are hemorrhaging cash in the aftermath of the disaster -- as well as an economic stimulus plan.

In the meantime, lawmakers are trying to avoid divisive battles over issues such as missile defense, either by resolving them quietly or putting them off until next year. Yesterday, congressional leaders held at least three bipartisan meetings, including one at the White House, and the Senate passed proposals authorizing war bonds. Earlier in the day, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) urged his colleagues to withhold any troublesome amendments -- and withheld one of his own -- while managing debate on an annual spending bill for the Treasury Department, Postal Service and other agencies.

Today, senators from both parties plan to travel to New York together by train to see the destruction firsthand.

While acknowledging the need for haste, Democratic senators meeting yesterday afternoon with Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) expressed concern that too much of it could be counterproductive. "If there was any common theme here, it was that people want a high degree of prudence and caution as we go forward," said Senate Rules Committee Chairman Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).

In the House, aides from both parties said they expected the White House to work out budget disagreements -- a locus of intense partisan sniping until last week -- with Congress in a matter of weeks. Aside from the terrorism legislation and spending bills, they predicted, very little else was likely to make it through Congress this year. Some lawmakers also hold out hope for finishing work on Bush's education plan.

For all the talk of comity and cooperation among parties, some fissures have started to appear, especially with regard to measures aimed at sparking economic growth. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) told reporters yesterday afternoon that "there is very strong interest" among his colleagues for a cut in the capital gains tax; a few feet away, Dorgan told another group of reporters that other forms of stimulus, such as an investment tax credit, "would make more sense."

After meeting yesterday with Leahy and other key lawmakers, Ashcroft said there is "substantial agreement" between the Justice Department's proposals and a similar plan drafted by Leahy and his staff. Ashcroft said he had directed his legislative staff to work "round the clock" to close any gaps between the two versions by next Tuesday.

"I believe we need every tool that is available to us -- tools that respect the Constitution of the United States and the rights of American citizens," Ashcroft said.

The proposed legislation would provide law enforcement with more tools in several areas, including expanded electronic surveillance and the ability to detain suspects and deport immigrants. It also broadens or changes criminal procedures in terrorism cases, involving -- among other things -- subpoenas, search warrants and seizure of assets.

Some of the electronic surveillance provisions have been requested for years by law enforcement agencies, including the FBI during the Clinton administration, but met with congressional resistance and opposition in the technology community.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates from across the political spectrum say the bill has been sloppily put together and threatens long-established rights for American citizens. "It's almost McCarthyesque," said Shari Steele, executive director and president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "It appears the government is really afraid and opening up the ability to intrude into the private lives of American citizens."

Privacy advocates who read the draft were particularly alarmed at how the bill might lower the threshold for wiretaps and search orders for all cases, not just those involving terrorism. "They want [to] relax wiretap law generally, and this is a good opportunity," said Michael Godwin, a privacy expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.

Leahy's proposals, which were released in summary form yesterday, are consistent with the Justice Department plan in some areas but do not go as far in others. In brief debate last week over some similar provisions that were attached to an appropriations bill for the Commerce, State and Justice departments, Leahy expressed reservations at how quickly some of the changes were being enacted.

The proposals will also have to be vetted by congressional intelligence committees, where they may encounter less resistance. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who also participated in the meeting with Ashcroft, praised the administration's proposals and said they were consistent with his views that the nation's intelligence laws are obsolete.

"When these laws were written, the thing we thought we were protecting ourselves against was espionage," he told reporters. "Terrorism was not an activity that was covered in most of our intelligence-gathering statutes. These changes that were recommended by the attorney general today will close that gap."

Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.