Posted on December 25, 1995 in Washington Watch
For the third time in as many years, the effort to pass an anti-terrorism bill has stalled in Congress. A broad coalition of legal, ethnic, and religious organizations came together to oppose this legislation. Their opposition is based on the fear that the proposed bill will violate a wide range of civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and will provide for the potentially abusive expansion of law enforcement. Some characterize the legislation as “draconian” and a resurrection of the worst abuses of the McCarthy era.
The 1995 version of the anti-terrorism legislation was initially introduced by the Clinton Administration as a part of its effort to counter what they described as domestic U.S. support for foreign terrorist activities. The Administration’s bill included proposals to: ban all U.S. fundraising for groups defined by the President as “terrorist;” deny visas to individuals identified with any such “terrorist” group; and allow for the use of secret evidence in extradition trials of individuals accused of membership in those organizations.
It was initially assumed that the Administration’s proposal would be accepted by the Republican-led Senate and Congress. Opponents of the bill, including Arab Americans, lobbied hard, receiving significant media attention for their complaint that the measures would violate constitutional protections. American Jewish groups, on the other hand, lobbied equally hard in favor of the bill, arguing that it was necessary to stop terrorism, specifically Islamic and Arab terrorism, from finding support in the United States.
But the bill had lost momentum until the April 19 bombing in Oklahoma City added new urgency to the legislation and new cause for the Administration and Congress to seek an expansion of law enforcement authority even beyond what the provisions in the original bill, including enhancing the power of law enforcement agencies to conduct wiretaps and investigations into the activities of “suspicious groups” and reducing the criteria needed to begin such an investigation.
Given the national trauma in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, it was assumed that the expanded bill would easily pass both houses of Congress. But it was at this time that the civil liberties lobby that traditionally influenced liberal members of Congress found new and unexpected allies among conservatives. Angered by the behavior of federal law enforcement agencies in two recent incidents, conservatives were wary of taking steps to expand the role of the government into the private affairs of citizens.
Public hearings were called in Congress to examine the role of law enforcement agencies at both Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where federal officers in what some saw as an unprovoked attack killed the wife and son of a right- wing extremist; and the tragic events outside of Waco, Texas where law enforcement agencies were once again criticized for the role they played in the deaths of scores of followers of the cult leader David Koresh.
As a result of this new concern among conservatives, the coalition opposing the anti-terrorism legislation grew. To the organizational muscle of the liberal civil liberties groups was added the apparatus of such powerful conservative organizations as the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America.
The Senate ultimately did pass the bill, but with some significant modifications. While some civil liberties groups were not satisfied with the Senate version, the revised bill did provide some additional protections not found in the original.
It was in the House of Representatives that the bill stalled. A group of 50 conservative Republicans balked at the legislation and refused to accept either the Administration’s or the Senate’s revised version. Even when a compromise was proposed which would have deleted the enhanced wiretap provisions, deleted funding for additional FBI personnel, deleted the provision to allow military involvement in civilian law enforcement and deleted the overly broad definition of terrorism – the conservative alliance still refused to support it. And so a coalition of liberals and conservatives in the Congress ended the possibility of passing an anti-terrorism bill in 1995.
The Republican leadership in Congress and the Democratic Administration are both pledging to renew their efforts to secure passage of an anti-terrorism bill in 1996, because both sides fear that the failure to pass such a bill will be used as a campaign issue.
But while “anti-terrorism” remains an emotional issue, it has not dissuaded both liberals and conservatives participating in the coalition from insisting that any legislation be precise, and not allow law enforcement agencies to overstep their bounds.
While the measures in the proposed legislation are dangerous to the rights of all Americans, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans are especially concerned since on too many occasions in the past two decades we have been cast as the weak link in the civil liberties chain. When various administrations have attempted to rewrite extradition law, undo reforms that restricted F.B.I. intrusion into legitimate and constitutionally protected political activities, and otherwise chill or repress the political activity of individual citizens – the targets were our communities.
While some pro-Israel groups and Israeli government officials are alleging that the Arab American and American Muslim communities are the major funders and even organizers of Middle East terrorist groups, U.S. officials have stated that these charges can not be substantiated.
In fact, there is no measurable support for terrorist activity among Arab or Muslim Americans. There is, however, a wide range of opinion within our communities about the peace process and there is some support for the charitable and political beliefs of some Middle East groups that oppose that process. Efforts to link this charitable activity with support for terrorism smacks of “guilt by association” and a denial of basic constitutional rights.
There is legitimate fear, based on past experience, that the proposed anti-terrorism legislation will cast a wide net and may be used by federal law enforcement as a tool for cracking down on honest dissent, especially victimizing vulnerable minority groups that espouse unpopular views.
The opponents of the anti-terrorism bill argue that new legislation is not necessary, and is, in fact, dangerous. To listen to the national outcry about terrorism in the U.S., one might conclude that the problem was of epidemic proportions. The F.B.I.’s own statistics, however, prove the contrary to be true. During the 1970s, there were dozens of domestic acts of terrorism committed each year. Even in the early 1980s when the F.B. I. first began to officially publish annual reports on domestic terrorism, the number of incidents averaged roughly 20 per year. In the past few years the number has been reduced to an average of three or four.
It is also significant to note that the major source of domestic terrorism is not from Arab or Muslim groups as has been widely projected in the media and by lobbying groups seeking support for the bill. By the F.B.I.’s own count, since 1982 there have been overall approximately 175 incidents of domestic terrorism. Of that number, 77 have been committed by Puerto Rican nationalist groups, 23 by left wing groups, and 12 by anti-Castro Cuban organizations. Eighteen acts were committed by what the F.B.I. termed “Jewish extremists” and 31 by animal rights and environmental groups. By comparison, in the past 14 years there have been only three domestic terrorism incidents attributed to Arabs or Muslims.
The World Trade Center Case notwithstanding, to make Arabs and Muslims the targets of this legislation as some American Jewish groups and members of Congress have done is plainly wrong and not justified by the facts.
Even a look at the State Department reports on anti-U.S. terrorist acts committed abroad shows that those originating in the Middle East by Arab or Islamic groups are among the fewest. For example, in 1994, 44 anti-U.S. terrorist acts occurred in Latin America, compared to 8 in the Middle East; in 1993 the numbers were 68 in Latin America and 8 in the Middle East.
Terrorism is an evil and it must be stopped.
But in making this case, it is important to refrain from both exaggerarting the extent of the problem and from creating a scapegoat to arouse public fear. It appears from available data that U.S. law enforcement agencies already have the power to do the job and they are succeeding. It is therefore unnecessary and wrong to suspend constitutionally guaranteed rights to take further steps.
The testimony of law enforcement experts was unanimous in stating that, as horrific as the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings were, there is nothing in even the most extreme versions of the proposed legislation that would have stopped either of these two hideous acts before they occurred. In the case of the group around Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, one must remember that the F.B.I. did in fact have that group under surveillance for at least three years and even had informants operating in its midst. An informant was the government’s star witness in the case against Sheikh Omar.
Not only do law enforcement agencies have extensive powers available to them without the bill, there is concern that they may have too much power and that in some cases they may have abused the powers granted under existing laws.
Recently documented cases by a number of dissident groups, all engaged in legal constitutionally protected political activity demonstrates that in many instances law enforcement officials have engaged in excessive surveillance and even harassment of these groups. Thousands of phones have been tapped and the FBI still maintains files on individuals and groups whose only crime is that they express views critical of existing government policy.
The concern expressed by opponents of the legislation, therefore, is that existing standards which are already lax should not be further lessened to allow even more intrusive activity by law enforcement. The coalition that formed to oppose the anti-terrorism bill remains committed to fighting efforts to further erode rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution to everyone residing in the U.S.
It would be tragic if, at the end of the Cold War, the Administration and the Congress were to succeed in reintroducing into American life some of the most repressive means that were used during the height of the Cold War to terrorize an earlier generation of immigrants.
For three years we have succeeded in staving off such efforts, but our resolve will be tested once more in 1996.
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