WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 (JTA) — A week after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the American Civil Liberties Union cautioned that in pursuing terrorists, America should not sacrifice civil liberties in the name of national security.
Jewish groups were noticeably absent from the list of more than 100 organizations that signed on.
Now, as the United States mounts its war on terrorism and anti- terrorism legislation moves full steam ahead in Congress the decision by liberal Jewish groups not to align with those they often agree with reflects the dilemma they face.
Activists and legislators alike have been caught between wanting to take swift action against terrorism and taking a cautious approach to new anti-terrorism legislation because of possible infringement on civil liberties and extending too much power to federal authorities.
Most Jewish groups are supporting the compromise legislation that is emerging.
The bill before the House of Representatives is a “good example of how you don’t have to choose between security and liberty,” said Stacy Burdett, assistant director of the ADL’s government and national affairs office in Washington.
“You cannot do nothing in the face of terrorism,” Burdett said. “You need to respond in a tough way.”
Certain expansions of current anti-terrorism laws suggested in the legislation make sense, Burdett said. For example, the ADL sees roving wiretaps—where the tap follows the person—as an efficient update of anti-terrorism laws.
At the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, “our instinct is to support a bill that gives law enforcement the tools to combat terrorism,” said Mark Pelavin, the group’s associate director.
But while the RAC endorses greater funding for law enforcement and better coordination between agencies to stop terrorism, there are still other provisions in the bill that are being monitored closely.
The House and Senate anti-terrorism bills are based on recommendations by the Bush administration but the House bill has dropped or revised some of the points.
Two major provisions that have raised civil liberties concerns for the RAC and other Jewish groups relate to wiretapping and searches and detention of suspects.
The administration was pushing warrantless searches but the House bill has amended the provision and placed limits on who can receive the wiretap information, and also requires a court order approving a search or certain types of electronic surveillance.
The administration also called for indefinite detention of foreigners who are certified by the attorney general to have terrorist ties. The House bill requires a seven-day limit on the detention and then asks for later court intervention and assessment of the case by the attorney general’s office.
Some provisions of the bill would expire in two years, forcing Congress to take action if they want to extend the legislation. The administration objects to the so-called sunset provisions.
The RAC has been working with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to raise concerns on the wiretapping and detention provisions in the Senate’s version of the bill, the tougher of the two bills under consideration. The final legislation will have to merge the House and Senate versions.
It is unusual for Jewish organizations to be on the outside of a civil liberties debate, but Jewish groups are especially sensitive to terrorism issues and sometimes end up parting company with their regular allies.
The ACLU’s letter called for “a need to consider proposals calmly and deliberately with a determination not to erode the liberties and freedoms” and to “resist the temptation to enact proposals in the mistaken belief that anything that may be called anti-terrorist will necessarily provide greater security.”
The ACLU letter was not objectionable, said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee, but there was not enough in it about national security concerns.
The difficult balancing game between civil liberties and national security interests also played out on some parts of the 1996 anti-terrorism legislation and with the debate on other legislation that allows classified evidence to be used against suspected terrorists.