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Behind the Headlines: Amtrak Derailment Prompts New Calls for Anti-terror Laws

The derailment of an Amtrak passenger train in the Arizona desert has led to renewed calls for the swift passage of anti-terrorism legislation currently stalled in Congress.

Counterterrorism legislation has been one of the top legislative priorities in the organized Jewish community.

Taking aim at those opposed to the legislation, President Clinton urged Congress to provide the tools needed to fight terrorism.

“It’s a mistake to do nothing,” he said at a news briefing here Wednesday.

The derailment of an Amtrak train en route from New Orleans to Los Angles early Tuesday plunged two locomotives and four cars 30 feet off the end of a trestle, killing one passenger and injuring 78 others.

The perpetrators, calling themselves “Sons of the Gestapo,” left at least two notes claiming responsibility near the site of the derailment.

Officials were investigating reports that the sabotage could have been an act of retaliation against the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and local police. The notes made references to the Ruby Ridge and Waco sieges, in which law enforcement officials fatally clashed with extremist groups.

Federal investigators are also looking into the possibility that a disgruntled employee sabotaged the track.

Jewish groups joined Clinton in pushing for passage of anti-terrorism legislation.

“Once again American citizens have become victims of domestic terrorism,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement.

“In this case the perpetrators reached back into the ugly side of our recent history to flaunt their heinous act under the umbrella of Nazism.

“The signature `the Sons of the Gestapo’ suggests to us they are a right-wing, anti-Semitic group.

“This incident, unfortunately, demonstrates that domestic terrorism is a clear and present danger to the American people,” Foxman said, adding, “The need for strong anti-terrorism legislation must be a priority and a reality.”

Likewise, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said it has intensified efforts to move the anti-terrorism legislation forward.

At the same time, Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, cautioned people not to jump to conclusions about the motive behind the train sabotage until the facts are known.

Anti-terrorism measures remain a prominent Jewish concern, according to Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee.

“The Jewish community has been singled out and has been a victim of international terrorism,” Foltin said. “There’s a need for strong anti- terrorism legislation to protect our community.”

Calls for anti-terrorism legislation accelerated following the Oklahoma City bombing last April, with the emphasis shifting from countering international terrorism to containing domestic terrorism.

In June, the Senate overwhelmingly passed an anti-terrorism bill allowing for broader government investigations, tighter immigration controls and some bans on fund raising in the United States for terrorism organizations.

The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill in June that most Jewish groups saw as being even more effective in countering terrorism activities than the Senate version. Among other things, the House proposal calls for even stricter bans on fund raising.

Floor debate on the House bill, originally slated for late September or early October, is still pending.

Despite renewed appeals for the legislation’s passage, widespread congressional support is far from solid, particularly with the investigation into the Amtrak sabotage still in its early stages.

An unusual coalition has formed in opposition to the legislation, which was introduced by Clinton last year. Conservatives who oppose gun control and expanded government authority have joined with liberals, who are concerned about the bill’s impact on civil liberties.

“That marriage of convenience has stalled momentum that had been built up for the bill,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director of the ADL’s Washington office.

Responding to Clinton’s call for passage of the anti-terrorism legislation, House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Clinton of political opportunism in using the train wreck as a “gimmick” to move forward his legislation.

He defended the House’s slow movement, saying, “We’re going very slowly, frankly, because when you look at Waco and you look at Ruby Ridge and you look at other information, a lot of Americans are very cautious about how much power to give to the executive branch and how much police powers to give away and how many civil liberties to give up,” he said Wednesday.

At the same time, Gingrich said he would call on the FBI to determine if such legislation could have done anything to avert an act of sabotage like the one in Arizona.

While acknowledging concerns about government excesses, Lieberman of ADL said Waco and Ruby Ridge are essentially red-herrings.

“Those hearings clearly demonstrate that law enforcement can sometimes overreach and overreach in exercising their authority, but they have no bearing whatsoever on the threat of terrorism facing the United States,” Lieberman said.

“Past excesses by law enforcement officials should not paralyze congressional leaders from taking action to prevent the kind of terrorism that we’ve seen in the last few months.”

In his news briefing, Clinton said the goal of countering terrorism can be reconciled with concerns about granting government too much power.

“I think the answer is, give us the tools we need to fight the problems of today and tomorrow with anti-terrorism, but hold us strictly, strictly accountable.

“That’s the answer; that’s the balanced, fair answer,” the president said. “We can achieve both.”

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