Despite Significant Improvements, ACLU Says House Bill Fails to Protect Liberty

October 4, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — Despite significant improvements in legislation adopted by the House Judiciary Committee last night, the American Civil Liberties Union today said that the bill fails to adequately protect liberty and should therefore be opposed.

“Ten years from now, our fear is that the American public will look back to this legislation and say, ‘this is where we crossed the line to a surveillance society,'” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “Because of the broad new powers to wiretap telephone and Internet communications, the legislation weakens essential checks and balances that the judicial branch has exercised over law enforcement.”

Specifically, the ACLU said it remains deeply troubled about the wiretapping and Internet surveillance provisions of the House legislation and about an overly broad definition of “terrorism” which includes activities that no reasonable person would consider terrorist activities.

The ACLU praised changes made to limit the extraordinary government power of indefinite detention, saying that they ameliorate the worst of the Administration’s proposals by requiring the Attorney General to periodically determine whether a non-citizen continues to pose a danger and makes the determination that an individual is a “terrorist” reviewable by a federal court.

The Judiciary Committee, however, failed to adopt amendments that would have restored judicial supervision to electronic surveillance and limit the information about U.S. citizens that winds up in the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency. Under the legislation, for example, wiretaps authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can be used as a “backdoor” way around Constitutional requirements.

“Under this legislation,” Murphy said, “the CIA will gain access to all kinds of information on American citizens that they are now forbidden – because of long and hard experience – from receiving. And we won’t know what they do with it or how long they keep it because it will all be secret.”

In addition, the ACLU said that the Judiciary Committee failed to narrow the definition of terrorism under federal law to include only acts that common sense would dictate to be terrorism. For example, under the legislation adopted by the Judiciary Committee, an organization like the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) could be investigated as a terrorist group because one of its members hits the Secretary of Agriculture with a pie.

The ACLU said it deeply appreciated the efforts of many on both sides of the aisle in working furiously in the last week to protect some of the liberties threatened under the Bush Administration’s original legislation, including, for example, the elimination of provisions that would have expanded the government’s authority to do secret searches.

“Although better, the legislation adopted by the Judiciary Committee last night will have a long-term negative impact on basic freedom in America,” Murphy said.

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