Tuesday, September 16, 2003

A key plank of President Bush’s antiterrorism legislation that gives government agents subpoena power is facing scrutiny in the House.

The bill would allow “administrative subpoenas” to question witnesses and collect files and electronic data without court oversight.

Rep. Tom Feeney, Florida Republican and the bill’s author, said there is “no question” his proposal will face “a lot of controversy.”

“I knew when we took this on there would be a lot of questions raised about this,” he said.

Critics say the measure would remove judicial oversight, and bypass judges and grand juries.

“To just start allowing government to do these things on its own, you’ve removed a very important safeguard from absolute exercise of power by the government — it’s a very fundamental change,” said former Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican.

“It sounds very benign, but it’s a very serious erosion of the traditional defense people have in this country against executive agencies overstepping its boundaries,” he said.

David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said the government has been given too many powers under the original USA Patriot Act, and that this proposal will lead to even greater intrusion on civil liberties.

Critics have dubbed the bill “Patriot II.”

“The administrative subpoena essentially gives the Justice Department bureaucrats the right to sign off on search warrants,” Mr. Keene said.

Mr. Feeney said his bill will not expand government authority but give investigative officials a quicker tool to detect and stop terrorism.

“When dealing with terrorists you cannot wait until they poison the water supply, and the next set of airplanes that plow into major metropolitan areas may be full of sarin or nerve gas, or even worse, a nuclear explosion,” he said.

A Justice Department report cited by Mr. Feeney outlines more than 300 types of investigations in which administrative subpoenas already can be issued. These involve crimes including health care fraud, child sexual abuse and threats against the president.

“People quarreling with the administration should be engaged to eliminate the 335 reasons that currently exist. It’s hard to argue terrorism is not a greater threat than the crimes currently subject to administrative subpoenas,” he said.

A House Republican leadership official said passage of administrative subpoenas is questionable, but that the other two antiterrorism measures announced by Mr. Bush last week — the death penalty and pretrial detention — will “sail through the House side.”

“It’s not far-reaching comprehensive legislation; it’s pretty straightforward,” the aide said of the remaining package.

Rep. John Carter, Texas Republican, is carrying the death-penalty legislation and said most Americans would be surprised to learn that such a law does not exist.

But critics say the death penalty will not be a deterrent for terrorists who are willing to die for their cause. Mr. Carter, however, said that not all terrorists appear inclined to die.

“Of course, it’s not going to deter everyone, but not everyone who is involved in terrorism is actually a suicide bomber,” he said. “I doubt Mr. bin Laden would strap dynamite and blow himself up, but he would send his own people out to wreak havoc, and under the law, he is just as guilty,” he said, referring to Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, leader of terror network al Qaeda.

Mr. Barr conceded that the death penalty will be an easy victory for the president, but said a new law is not needed because “in those cases where it is warranted, the government can pretty much get it now.”

Mr. Barr and Mr. Keene said the whole package was a tactic to deflect attention from the Patriot Act and pass “Patriot II” one plank at a time.

“As extensive as the laundry list of powers in the Patriot Act is, they still have a long list they are going after, and they will bring these things out piecemeal,” Mr. Barr said. “They think the chances of securing passage are better if they do it by bits and pieces than if by one omnibus bill.”

The Republican leadership aide said all the measures will be “heavily scrutinized,” but that legislators are “very open” to the approach of moving the administration’s request one bill at a time.

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