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DON'T JEOPARDIZE LIBERTIES IN FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM

Intelligence officers . . . thought they had a bead on suicide bombers. They were young, desperate and zealous. Then, two airliners sliced through the World Trade Center towers, another hit the Pentagon and yet a fourth crashed south of Pittsburgh. The profile of the suicide bombers? They were educated and middle class. One had a wife and family. . . .

This new terrorist has many experts baffled. They note how much more difficult the task of thwarting terrorism becomes when the likely perpetrators establish roots in this country, appearing to follow ordinary lives. . . .

The steeper challenge explains, in part, the quest of John Ashcroft. The attorney general has spent the last week touting a package of legislation designed to enhance the ability of the FBI and others to fight terrorism. He wants to expand federal use of wiretaps and the capacity to track schemes for laundering money. . . . Ashcroft wants the feds liberated from rules requiring a search warrant for each telephone they wish to tap. . . .

What Congress should demand is clear evidence that the current restrictions have actually hampered investigations. Lawmakers should also explore changes that have already given investigators more flexibility with "roving wiretaps." . . .

More promising is a proposal to permit the FBI to open an investigation against suspected terrorists based on evidence they are laundering money. . . . The practice is due for increased oversight next year. The deadlines should be accelerated. . . .

Lawmakers should examine closely the tools already available and proceed cautiously to supply new ones. Get the terrorists. Don't jeopardize liberties and hand them even the slightest victory. . . .

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