Efforts to Curb Terrorism Clash With Freedoms
Galvanized by the pipe-bombing in Atlanta and the suspected sabotage of TWA Flight 800, the Clinton administration is broadening an offensive against terrorism. But there may be limits to how far it can go.
In its latest move, the administration is using the fallout from last Saturday's explosion in Atlanta to press legislation, including enhanced federal wiretapping powers, that Congress dumped from a major antiterrorism bill approved in April.
Other actions include tighter domestic airport security and new protection for American troops overseas in the wake of the June bombing of a US military compound in Saudi Arabia. The US pushed for greater international counter-terror measures at a Paris conference of the world's leading industrialized nations and Russia July 30.
But in an era of prevailing small government sentiment, there may be a limit to how much the White House can boost government law-enforcement powers. At home there are congressional concerns over compromising civil liberties and watch, and objections from powerful political lobbies, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Internationally, US allies are adamantly opposed to the administration's key demand for economic sanctions against Iran and other states it accuses of sponsoring terrorism.
But perhaps the greatest obstacle is the nature of the beast itself: No matter how stringent the measures taken, zealots driven by ideology and determination and armed with widely available technology will likely find a way around them.
"It may be that there is nothing that can be done," says Richard Shultz, director of national security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "A free society is an open society. It seems that at some point, they ought to be able to protect airlines. But in terms of someone who wants to park a van outside a federal building, as in Oklahoma City, or leave a pipe bomb at the Olympics, that's pretty hard to stop."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, who sponsored the wire-tapping legislation rejected by Congress earlier this year, agrees that terrorism will persist no matter what steps are taken. But he says more can be done to reduce the threat without trampling on civil liberties.
In addition to his legislation and the other measures on which the White House is seeking congressional reconsideration, Senator Lieberman says vigilance can be stepped up at potential terrorism targets, such as large public gatherings. Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies can also work harder at infiltrating extremist groups at home and abroad, he says.
"When there is a case," he says, "we have to make sure that we bring people to justice. If the trail leads to foreign countries, then we have to strike at those countries to send the message that we understand this is a war and we will fight."
Lieberman's bill would have given federal law-enforcement agents the ability - with the approval of a magistrate - to conduct "roving wiretaps" of suspected terrorists. That would allow them to obtain a single warrant to monitor all telephones, including cellular phones, used by suspects.
The measure was killed by liberal and conservative lawmakers concerned that it would permit even greater government intrusion into private communications. They point out that since Clinton has come to office, federally authorized wiretaps have skyrocketed from 340 in 1992 to 672 in 1995. More than 700 are expected to be approved this year.
Gregory Nojeim of the American Civil Liberties Union, which led the fight against the measure, says federal agencies already can conduct "roving wiretaps." They must first convince a magistrate that a suspect "intends" to evade monitoring by switching telephones. That protection of privacy would be eliminated by Lieberman's legislation, he says.
Mr. Nojeim contends there are other counter-terrorism measures available to the government that do not infringe on civil liberties. They include boosting funds to help Russia better secure its poorly safeguarded nuclear stockpiles and requiring that fertilizers contain substances that render them inert, so they couldn't be used in the kind of bomb detonated on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City.
Furthermore, he says, tracers known as taggants should be added to commercial explosives and gunpowders to help law-enforcement officers track purchasers who used them in bombs.
Taggant legislation is among the measures Clinton wants Congress to reconsider.
In Paris, the G-7 group of industrialized nations and Russia examined new cooperative anti-terrorism measures, including pooling intelligence, attacking funding sources, and facilitating extradition of suspects.
But the Europeans stood firm in their rejection of US legislation calling for economic embargoes against Iran and Libya, nations that Washington accuses of sponsoring terrorism.
The Europeans advocate a policy of "engagement" to draw Iran and Libya back into the international mainstream. US officials, however, accuse their European counterparts of seeking to protect European business interests at the expense of international security.