9/11: Patriot Act Dispute
Washington Post Article
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Anti-Terrorism Bill Hits Snag on the Hill
Dispute Between Senate Democrats,
White House Threatens Committee Approval
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 3, 2001; Page A6
The glow of bipartisanship faded a bit on Capitol Hill yesterday as negotiations on an anti-terrorism bill hit a last-minute snag and Attorney General John D. Ashcroft accused the Democratic-controlled Senate of delaying legislation that he says is urgently needed to thwart another terrorist attack.
One day after House negotiators reached a bipartisan compromise on the bill, talks between Bush administration officials and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) stumbled on -- among other things -- a provision setting out rules under which law enforcement agencies could share wiretap and grand jury information with intelligence agencies.
Leahy accused the White House of reneging on an agreement Sunday settling the last significant differences between his committee and the administration on the final shape of the legislation to expand police powers in surveillance and other realms.
Ashcroft, though he did not comment directly on the dispute, complained that the Senate was not moving with sufficient speed given what he said was the urgent need for additional law enforcement tools with which to fight terrorism.
"Talk won't prevent terrorism," Ashcroft said after meeting with Leahy yesterday, adding that he was "deeply concerned about the rather slow pace" of the legislation.
The finger-pointing marked a breach in the facade of public unity that has governed relations between Congress and the administration -- and Republicans and Democrats -- since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
On Monday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) reached agreement with Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the committee's ranking Democrat, on a bipartisan compromise that incorporates many administration proposals. Among them are measures to expand police powers to install wiretaps, monitor Internet communications, and apprehend and prosecute suspected terrorists.
The House negotiators rejected the most controversial proposal, which would have permitted the indefinite jailing of noncitizens suspected of terrorism. Under their version of the bill, the attorney general could detain suspected terrorists for seven days, after which they would have to be charged or released.
While emphasizing the need to safeguard civil liberties, Leahy has also expressed his desire to get the bill done quickly. But Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told reporters that he wanted an agreement on the bill in the next few days but that he doubted the Senate could take up the legislation before next week, as the administration had asked.
Some Republican lawmakers, notably Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), the ranking minority member of the judiciary panel, said they shared Ashcroft's frustration over the delay.
"It's a very dangerous thing," said Hatch, who attended the meeting late yesterday morning with Ashcroft, Leahy and White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales. "It's time to get off our duffs and do what's right."
Since the administration delivered its bill to Capitol Hill almost two weeks ago, negotiations between Senate Judiciary Committee staff and the Justice Department have proceeded at a fever pitch. According to participants in the discussions, both sides had narrowed their differences over the weekend to just a few issues. One of the most difficult involved an administration proposal that would allow the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to share wiretap and grand jury information with the CIA, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies.
Under current law aimed at preventing political abuses by the executive branch, such information cannot be shared in the absence of a court order. The administration would have dispensed with that requirement.
The House negotiators drafted a slightly narrower version of the administration proposal. Leahy, however, insisted on a compromise under which agencies could share sensitive information in times of emergency, so long as they obtained a court order afterward. White House officials agreed to the compromise in discussions with committee staff on Sunday but backed off the agreement this morning, according to Leahy and a Democratic committee source.
"Right off the bat they said they wanted to pull back from the language agreed to on Sunday night," the source said. "It was the last major issue."
A Democratic participant in the talks said the White House had also backed away from agreement on several other provisions in the bill, including one relating to the definition of a terrorist crime. The administration had asked for the removal of statutes of limitations on all crimes associated with terrorist activity. The House negotiators as well as Leahy and his staff felt the proposal was overly broad. They agreed on a measure that would impose no statute of limitations for the most serious terrorist crimes and a 15-year limit on others, such as destruction of property.
A White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, declined to comment on the specifics of the dispute. "We're continuing to work with members of both parties," McClellan said. "The discussions are positive and ongoing."
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