Push For Tougher Terror Laws
WASHINGTON -- Following the foiled United Kingdom bomb plot, the Bush administration is expected to use the terrorist threat to regain the upper hand in congressional debates and push for government action before the November elections.
Republicans appear to be circling around a new strategy to advocate stronger counterterrorism laws and expand domestic surveillance, while pushing back against civil libertarians.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is emerging as a point man in the drive for tougher laws, yesterday noting Britain's ability to hold suspects without publicizing the charges. Appearing on ABC News's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Mr. Chertoff said he would like to see a renewed look at U.S. laws that could give authorities here the flexibility to detain suspects for longer periods of time, noting that the British have such latitude.
Mr. Chertoff, who weeks ago was widely viewed in Congress as the beleaguered head of a troubled department, has emerged as the public face and voice of the U.S. government's response to the alleged London plot. Now the Department of Homeland Security has won praise for calibrated advisories and quick action that stopped passengers from potentially smuggling liquid explosives on airliners, but didn't unduly disrupt air travel. Although some critics considered the department late in responding to a well-known threat -- liquid bombs -- Mr. Chertoff's enhanced standing allows him to spearhead the call to re-examine America's counterterrorism laws by looking at how Britain fights terrorism.
The differences in how Britain and the U.S. approach counterterrorism strategies reflect a distinction between the two countries' legal systems and their definitions of civil liberties. British police and security agencies have greater authority and latitude than their American counterparts to conduct domestic surveillance and detain terrorism suspects.
Britain's newly revised terrorism laws permit the detention of suspects for 28 days without charge. In the U.S., suspects must be brought before a judge as soon as possible, which courts have interpreted to mean within 48 hours.
Nevertheless, the U.S. has been able to use existing laws to thwart what it said were terrorist plots in the making. During the weekend, three men from the Dallas area were arraigned in Michigan on terrorism-related charges.
The men, who were arrested Friday, were said to be linked to a plot to target the Mackinac Bridge, between Michigan's lower and upper peninsulas, the Grand Rapids Press reported. Police seized a laptop computer containing evidence that led them to believe the bridge was the target, the newspaper said. Police also found about 1,000 cellphones in the suspects' car. The men told police they had bought the cellphones to sell for profit.
As the administration pressed for further changes, Congress has yet to take up legislation authorizing warrantless wiretapping, specifically a proposal Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania worked out in negotiations with the Bush administration. That measure could become a vehicle for any increased authority the administration might want -- and for an election-year debate that would highlight Republican efforts to fight terrorism.
For most of the year, President Bush has been on the defensive on issues such as warrantless wiretapping and the handling of prisoners suspected of terrorism, while opinion polls show that fewer and fewer voters believe the Republicans do a better job than Democrats in handling the war on terrorism and ensuring a strong national defense.
Recent polls show while Americans are concerned that the U.S. government will go too far in monitoring the activities of potential terrorists in the U.S. and violate the privacy of average citizens, they also are supportive of legislation such as the Patriot Act, and on balance have been inclined to embrace controversial antiterror steps, such as telephone and financial surveillance, over civil-liberties concerns. Republican congressional leaders have already begun to raise the possibility that changes might be needed.
Similar sentiment has been expressed by senior Republicans in the House as well. "You can't be going to court every time you want to monitor these conversations because they come in at a rapid pace. And...we have to get away from this concept that we have to apply civil-liberties protections to terrorists," Peter King (R., N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said last week on Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor."
Democrats, meanwhile, sought to praise the British triumph and necessity for intelligence while stressing there still was a need for checks and balances. Rep. Jane Harman of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a news release last week that she agreed with Republicans who said terrorism wasn't a vague, distant threat but a reality we must face every day.
"This demonstrates the importance of a legislative framework around the new tools needed to fight this elusive and sophisticated foe. Without this framework, we risk eroding our Constitution and civil liberties -- exactly as the terrorists wish," she said.
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