Reform Jewish Leaders Call for "Caution" as Senate Considers Anti-Terrorism Legislation
"We applaud you for taking steps necessary to arm law enforcement officials to fight the battle against terrorism. We also urge you not to sacrifice the great freedoms that make that battle worth fighting, and to exercise caution before granting final approval to this important, yet seriously flawed, legislation"
Contact: Alexis Rice or Michael Weiner (202) 387-2800
WASHINGTON, October 25, 2001- In a letter today to members of the Senate, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and David S. Davidson, Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, voiced their concern over the anti-terrorism legislation currently being considered. The letter expresses "strong support for most of the provisions of the proposed bill that will provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to effectively combat terrorism," but cautions that, "several provisions of the bill would severely imperil fundamental civil liberties." The complete letter follows:
As the Senate moves toward final consideration of anti-terrorism legislation responding to the tragic events of September 11, we write on behalf of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism to express our strong support for most of the provisions of the proposed bill that will provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to effectively combat terrorism.
Like all Americans and freedom lovers around the world, we were, and are, deeply shaken by the events of September 11. We recognize the need for, and will support, changes in current law to give the law enforcement community the power it needs to investigate and prosecute terrorism and related crimes. Many of the provisions in the House and Senate bills (H.R. 2975/S. 1510) are significant improvements over current law. Among other provisions, we applaud the proposals criminalizing those who fund and harbor terrorists as well as those who commit such acts directly. Likewise, we recognize the need to extend existing statutes into the Information Age, taking heed of the technological changes that necessitate the expansion of pen register guidelines to include some e-mail information (specifically "to/from" lines of messages, but not subject lines or URLs) and that justify the use of "roving wiretaps" in certain circumstances. These are essential changes, and their importance is underscored by the growing sophistication and global reach of international terrorist networks. Such measured changes to existing law will better equip officials to wage a just and effective campaign against terrorism.
We also write, however, to voice our concern that several provisions of the bill would severely imperil fundamental civil liberties. Many of the proposed changes in this legislation are not new ideas, and indeed, have been rejected by Congress in the past. A general expansion of law enforcement powers, beyond those necessary to fight terrorism, cannot be justified if such an expansion comes at the expense of core civil liberties principles of privacy, due process, and freedom of association. We fear that many provisions of this legislation will do just that.
We are particularly concerned about the proposed expansion of the scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which could result in an unprecedented number of domestic criminal investigations taking place outside the purview of our traditional criminal justice system. Further, the proposed expansion of the definitions of terrorism and what constitutes support for terrorist groups are overly broad. These vague definitions would create a real and dangerous risk of sweeping innocent people and benign groups into their reach.
In considering well-meaning proposals aimed at keeping law enforcement up to date with technological change, we must be ever vigilant in preventing an extension of government authority that stretches far beyond existing law. Unfortunately, this is the case with provisions of the anti-terrorism legislation dealing with pen registers, which, without a showing of probable cause, would allow broad access to the content of e-mail and other Internet transactions, including subject lines and detailed URL addresses.
Other sections of the bill seem related more to fulfilling a general law enforcement wish list than to actually fighting the specific menace of terrorism, including provisions expanding and justifying what, in effect, constitutes indefinite detention of non-citizens, as well as reducing the role of a judge in making such decisions. These provisions fly in the face of the great immigrant tradition of this nation. As an immigrant group, the Jewish community is acutely aware of this danger.
All of these concerns lead us to question seriously the haste with which this legislation has been considered and the tone of some of the debate that has characterized its consideration. During the past several weeks, some proponents of this legislation have suggested that there is no time to discuss and debate these issues cautiously, that there is no time to send the bill through the traditional legislative process, and that there is no time to pay much attention to the profound concerns expressed by civil libertarians. These problems were exacerbated when the House leadership substituted a modified version of the Senate bill for a Republican-Democratic compromise bill that unanimously passed the House Judiciary Committee. Others have suggested that those raising questions about the constitutional implications of the bill are hindering efforts by law enforcement to prevent future acts of terrorism and to investigate the tragic events of September 11. Some have even gone so far as to label opponents of the bill as unpatriotic. This kind of rhetoric is unacceptable in a democratic society that was founded upon and continues to cherish its openness and freedom to dissent.
The notion that these proposals should be enacted without sober and cautious consideration belies the great importance of this legislation as well as its potentially far-reaching implications. This course of events undermines the democratic process and is unacceptable in debate over any piece of legislation, much less one as important as this.
We also want to affirm our support for a sunset provision, in order to address, however incompletely, some of the issues outlined above. While the two-year sunset proposed in the original House bill remains the best option, any sunset is better than none. Such a provision would give the nation an opportunity to see the full implications of at least some of the changes brought about by this legislation before they become permanent. After such a hasty legislative process, a serious and thoughtful reevaluation should occur sooner rather than later.
We applaud you for taking steps necessary to arm law enforcement officials to fight the battle against terrorism. We also urge you not to sacrifice the great freedoms that make that battle worth fighting, and to exercise caution before granting final approval to this important, yet seriously flawed, legislation.
Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
David S. Davidson
Chair, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism