Two proposed bills being considered by Congress that would give U.S. law enforcement extensive powers to snoop on electronic and voice communications are expected to converge on Capitol Hill next week as the Senate and House of Representatives work to send a single antiterrorism bill to President Bush.
The House and the Senate have drafted separate bills that would expand the ability for law enforcement agencies to gather information on suspected terrorists. However, the fate of each of those is unclear.
The Senate bill, called the USA Act (Uniting and Strengthening America Act), was under consideration behind closed doors for more than a week and reached the full Senate late Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, said late Thursday he expected the Senate to continue debating it until a vote takes place well into the night or early Friday morning.
The House bill, known as the PATRIOT Act (Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), has already received widespread support. After some last-minute amendments, the House Judiciary Committed voted 36-0 last week to send the bill to the full house floor. However, a spokesman for the House Judiciary Committee said Thursday that although the House was set to convene Friday to discuss the legislation, it wasn't clear what they will be looking at -- the PATRIOT Act, the Senate bill, or a variation of the two.
"Things are constantly changing," said Terry Shawn, press secretary for the House Judiciary Committee. "It's fluid and almost unstable."
The House has been under pressure from the Bush administration to drop its version of the bill and take up the USA Act. Aside from including less of the sweeping authority that Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for in his original proposal, the House bill comes with an expiration date for its measures of December 2003.
"There's been considerable House resistance in abandoning the (PATRIOT Act) and voting on the Senate bill," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Technology and Democracy (CDT).
However, a final bill supported by both branches of Congress, which would ultimately be endorsed by Bush, has yet to come to fruition.
Lawmakers continued to butt heads on several issues regarding just how extensively the government should be able to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists.
The Senate scheduled more than four hours of floor time, beginning at about 7 p.m. ET Thursday, to debate four amendments proposed in the USA Act. Those last-minute changes came Wednesday from Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who has surfaced in the Senate as the only vocal critic of the bill.
He has asked that the Senate change wording in the bill to allow eavesdropping of pay phones or other public communication devices only when a suspect is using that device. The amendments also would cut back on some measures that would allow law enforcers to search homes and offices without a serving the owner of that property with a warrantIn a letter Tuesday to ranking Senators, Feingold urged them to bring the bill to a full Senate debate. "There has been no opportunity in the Judiciary Committee, much less in the full Senate, for Senators to raise concerns about how far this bill goes in giving broad new powers to law enforcement to wiretap and investigate law-abiding U.S. citizens," Feingold wrote.
Even if Feingold's amendments do pass muster, the Senate bill will still include tough language such as giving law enforcement agencies the ability to monitor a computer that is being used by a "computer trespasser," even if it is a public computer used by other people, like those at libraries and universities, CDT's Berman said. "There is nothing in this bill that removes those from this statute," he said.
Privacy groups are also still rumbling over one statute that would treat some computer hackers as terrorists. First outlined in the original Antiterrorism Act proposed by Ashcroft, any hacking or Denial of Service attack would fall under the same category of crime as terrorism.
The PATRIOT Act aims to tone that down, narrowing down the types of computer crime that fall under this legislation to those that pose a threat to the U.S., said Lee Tien, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy group. Still, "the definition of a computer hacker is a very fluid thing," he said.
While urging lawmakers to reconsider any bill that would limit personal privacy, some civil liberties groups are supporting any changes made to the bill. The CDT said Thursday that it has urged lawmakers to pass all the proposed changes to the bill.
"We are facing an erosion of civil liberties no matter what we do," Berman said.. "We are not supporting the Senate bill. But this is what we've got to work with."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, has been less forgiving of the legislation. "We don't support either bill, at least as far as the issues of surveillance go," EFF's Tien said. "The differences between the House bill and the Senate bill are not that great. They both essentially open the door for law enforcement to come in and intercept communication."
If both branches pass their respective bills, the House and Senate will probably meet next week for a full conference session to complete the legislation. If the Senate manages to pass the USA Act before the House votes on its bill, that could ignite some sort of closed-door negotiations between the two branches of Congress.
"Everything looks as though we're heading for some kind of meeting between the House and Senate to reconcile one bill," Berman said. "In our view, that is some progress."