The U.S. Congress this week is expected to begin considering the Bush administration's request to strengthen anti-terrorism laws following last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Balancing the need for increased security with the desire to protect civil liberties is expected to be a key area of debate.
Attorney General John Ashcroft is pressing Congress for swift passage of new counterterrorism measures. They would, among other things, expand the ability of the Justice Department to place wiretaps on telephones and computer terminals.
Civil rights advocates warn the proposals could significantly weaken Constitutional protections of privacy and civil liberties.
Some lawmakers say some erosion of civil liberties may be inevitable as the United States steps up its crackdown on terrorism.
Democratic House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt made the point on CNN's 'Late Edition' last Sunday. "We are going to have to rebalance the trade-off, the balance, between freedom and security in our country," he said. "That is going to cause some controversial decisions in some cases. Those are going to be hard decisions to make. We are going to have to do it in a democratic way getting input from our people. But I can see no way, given this dangerous world that we are in, that we can have the amount of openness and freedom [that we have had in the past].
Arab-American groups, noting a spate of attacks against Muslim Americans since last week's terrorist incidents, are concerned that this segment of the population will see their rights diminish under tighter security laws.
Attorney General Ashcroft Wednesday sought to ease such concerns, while standing firm on the pledge to fight terrorism. "I am deeply concerned about the civil liberties of all Americans," he said. "I am especially concerned about the civil liberties of Arab Americans and Middle Eastern Americans, who are patriotic citizens, who lament and regret this loss, perhaps as much as keenly or more keenly than any, and whose commitment to the strict enforcement and pursuit of these networks of terror that inflict this kind of injury is as strong as any. We will conduct this effort to investigate and to prosecute with strict regard for every safeguard of the United States Constitution. But we will not fail to use any tool, we will not fail to use any tool, that can promote apprehension, disruption of the networks that caused these damages, and prevent a similar occurrence in the future."
Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who also spoke on CNN's 'Late Edition' Sunday, agrees with Mr. Ashcroft. "We know in a democracy how to get tough, and put in rigorous regimens of discipline, security without trespassing against the fundamental rights of human beings in a civilized society," he said. "There will be inconvenience, but we will not violate people's basic rights as we make this nation more secure."
Several of the attorney general's proposals are incorporated in a counterterrorism bill now making its way through the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Democrat Bob Graham of Florida.
In response to concerns about civil liberties, Senator Graham is also proposing the creation of an independent office to monitor how the Justice Department implements stiffer anti-terrorism measures. "I do not believe there is any reason to restrict our civil liberties," he said. "That would be the ultimate victory of the terrorist if he would cause this great free and open society to become more like they are."
Congress is expected to pass the package of anti-terrorism measures soon, though perhaps not by the deadline of week's end as requested by the attorney general.