- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

The House Judiciary Committee yesterday afternoon began marking up its compromise package of anti-terrorism legislation. As currently constituted, the bill, which could reach the House floor as early as today, is likely to be a modest step forward in protecting Americans against terrorism. And it would do this without undermining constitutionally protected freedoms.

Many of the 19 men identified by investigators as having hijacked the four doomed U.S. airliners Sept. 11 were in this country illegally. The Judiciary panel's bill would increase from two to seven days the amount of time that federal immigration officials can detain illegal aliens who are suspected terrorists without charging them with a violation of immigration law or a more serious crime. Seven days is still very narrow compared to the indefinite detention period that the administration originally proposed.

The bill would remove the statute of limitations (currently five to eight years) for a range of terrorism-related offenses. The measure would also enable law-enforcement authorities to obtain a court order to wiretap multiple telephones used by a terrorist suspect. (Under current law, officials can only wiretap a specific telephone used by a suspect.) Under the Judiciary bill, it would also become somewhat easier for law-enforcement officials to obtain court orders permitting them to listen to overseas telephone conversations involving terrorist suspects. In addition, it would make it easier to obtain information from Internet service providers about a suspect's e-mail messages.

When Bill Clinton requested similar authority during the debate on anti-terrorism legislation five years ago, many conservatives, including this page, expressed deep skepticism, and with very good reason at the time. After the 1995 terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, Mr. Clinton and some media spinmeisters had cynically attempted to smear conservative and libertarian critics of government excesses such as Waco and Ruby Ridge by suggesting that they had somehow inspired Timothy McVeigh's butchery. Add to that the White House's absconding with 900 or so FBI files of prominent Republicans, the selective use of IRS audits against conservative groups, Travelgate and other outrages, and it became very clear that the Clinton administration could not be trusted to exercise such powers responsibly. But President Bush is certainly no Bill Clinton. He has thus far done an admirable job of mobilizing the country in a time of crisis, and, unlike his predecessor, has not sought to exploit terrorist outrages to settle scores with his political critics.

The Judiciary Committee bill is only a starting point, a step in the right direction. Still, Congress will need to exercise its oversight function vigilantly. It must ensure that the federal government does not abuse the added powers it will receive to prevent attacks like those on Sept. 11.

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