Civil Liberties Fears Block Anti-terror Bills

In a post-post-9/11 world, putting the word “terrorism” in a measure’s name doesn’t guarantee passage.

Police stand watch on a corner next to the scene of the Pulse nightclub mass shooting June 16 in Orlando, Fla.
AP Photo/David Goldman
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
July 12, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

The Anti-terrorism Information Sharing Is Strength Act, much like most bills with the phrase “anti-terrorism” in the title, was not meant to be difficult to pass. Neither was the Homeland Safety and Security Act.

Yet despite the Orwellian names, the first bill was voted down Monday evening with bipartisan objections and the other sits in limbo as rank-and-file Republicans remain skeptical of their own leadership’s ideas about how to combat lone-wolf extremist terrorism.

It’s a dynamic that a decade ago would be unthinkable: Giving a bill an antiterrorism moniker would ease passage, and voting against an antiterrorism bill would leave a member with disdain from their party leaders and political ramifications back home. But in a post-post-9/11 world, the landscape has changed, and that was shown again on the House floor Monday night.

“Leadership on both sides of the aisle tend to name things warm and fuzzy, apple-pie kind of things and then they put all kinds of stupid things in it,” said Rep. John Fleming, a Republican who voted against the bill. “That’s what we see in Washington: We put a very nice title on something, but when you read the bill you find out it does something very different.”

Leaders brought the Anti-terrorism Information Sharing Is Strength Act up for a vote under suspension of the rules, a designation reserved for uncontroversial bills because in exchange for an expedited vote, leaders must secure a two-thirds majority of the House to pass the legislation. But Rep. Justin Amash, who has long been a champion of civil liberties, sounded the alarm.

Through social media and press releases, Amash warned that the bill would expand the controversial Patriot Act by expanding liability immunity to financial institutions that share customers’ transactional information with the government. Though the measure was billed as a counterterrorism bill—its sponsor argued that the information would help thwart terrorism-related money laundering—Amash said the language would instead allow banks to share information about people suspected only of lesser domestic crimes.

The measure “calls itself an ‘anti-terrorism’ bill, but instead it expands #PatriotAct to let govt demand info on any American w/o due process,” Amash wrote on Twitter.

It turned out many of Amash’s colleagues agreed—Republicans and Democrats alike. When it came to the House floor Monday night, it failed to clear the two-thirds hurdle with a 229-177 tally. The dissenters included members of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, the far-left Progressive Caucus, and members of all stripes in between.

“The fact you put a label on it is not enough,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Democrat who voted against the bill. “This is a long time building. I think there is a bipartisan coalition—and a few times it’s actually prevailed—of libertarian-right and left-of-center Democrats and even some centrist Democrats, who are increasingly troubled about the false choice we’re being asked to make between civil liberties and safety and protection.”

Though that may not have been the case in the weeks and months following the Sept. 11 attacks, there is a different level of judiciousness in Congress today—especially when it comes to savvily named antiterror bills, said Rep. Beto O’Rourke, another Democrat who voted against the bill.

“I’m glad there’s more skepticism in Congress now than there was in 2001, 2005, and 2008 on these issues, and it’s not automatic that you say, ‘We’re going to protect the country against terrorists’ and you get a ‘Yes,’” O’Rourke said.

That dynamic has also affected the Homeland Safety and Security Act, a package sponsored by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy that was meant to address the outcry after a mass shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub in June.

After the shooting, Democrats protested on the House floor calling for, among other things, a vote to bar people on the terror watch list from being able to buy guns. Yelling, “Shame,” they implored leaders to bring such a bill for a vote. To answer their calls, GOP leaders included in the package a similar version of the bill thinking they could get the support of some of their Republican colleagues.

But problems arose on both sides, as the renewed emphasis on civil liberties, paired with longstanding objections among Republicans to gun control, scuttled the effort. Outside progressive critics said Democrats were picking a problematic issue to herald because the terrorist watch list has been known to have misidentifications. Meanwhile, citing both civil-liberties and Second Amendment concerns, rank-and-file Republicans rejected their leaders’ entreaties. The measure was pulled from consideration and it remains unclear whether leaders will bring it back.

Connolly said this kind of skepticism among members as well as the public has stemmed from the excesses of both the Bush and Obama administrations when it comes to the War on Terror. Introspection over the rush to war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and revelations of warrantless wiretapping by the NSA have given people pause about allowing for the erosion of civil liberties under the auspices of counterterrorism.

As for a change of tone in Congress, members also cited as a watershed moment the 2013 debate over Amash’s amendment to end the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone records. The amendment narrowly failed, but drew worldwide attention to the cause and united Democrats and Republicans in opposition to government spying.

“We’ve been in a post-post-9/11 world for quite a while. What you see, in reductions each time in the excesses of the Patriot Act, NSA bulk collection, and so on, is a rebalancing of that which is necessary versus that which is nice for law enforcement,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican who voted against the bill. “The American people, after 16 years, realize they want the new normal to retain their constitutional rights and freedoms.”

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