The 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act

The Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 gave extensive new authority to federal law enforcement agencies, one of many steps on the long march to a police state. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was the initial impetus behind the bill. The Alfred Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City created bipartisan support for the bill at a time when it was being stalled by civil liberties advocates. Activists managed to hold the bill off for another year, but it was finally passed in April 1996.

S. 390 was introduced February 10, 1995 by Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania. H.R. 896 was introduced the same day in the House by Rep. Charles Schumer, D-New York, and Rep. Dicks.

The bill passed the Senate in June 1995, but was held up in the House by intense lobbying by what was called "an unusual coalition" of gun rights groups and civil liberties organizations. Such coalitions are unusual in the traditional right-left frame of mind, but not in the libertarian movement.

The bill finally passed the House in March 1996, and was signed into law in April 1996.

The Law

The Center for National Security Studies issued an excellent [WWW]analysis of the bill, along with information on the [WWW]FBI and [WWW]trends.

The National Coalition Against Repressive Legislation summarized the bill in 1995 and the law as finally passed in 1996. NCARL and others raised important criticisms:

Presumed guilty, secret evidence can be used
Permanent resident aliens arrested under this law have to prove they should not be held in jail before trial. Secret evidence can used in the detention hearings and at trial that only the judge could see, not the defendant.

First Amendment protections weakened.
The law lifts a 1994 Crime law restriction prohibiting the FBI from investigations based on speech or beliefs, when restricting humanitarian aid. Foreigners can be barred from speaking in the U.S. using McCarthy era McCarran-Walter Act provisions. An overbroad definition of terrorism virtually requires the Justice Department to select crimes to prosecute based on political beliefs and associations.

Presidential powers expanded.
The President can label organizations -- without any appeal or review -- as "terrorist", and criminalize fundraising for humanitarian aid even remotely related to such groups.

Punishment for lawful actions.
Permanent resident aliens can be deported or indefinitely jailed for their affiliations or political activity, with no judicial review.

Constitutional protections eroded.
The law further restricts the Bill of Rights' habeas corpus protections for state prisoners. Although this is a terrorism law, and death-row inmates were used to justify this provision, this affects all state prisoners, and no one convicted of federal terrorism laws. Prisoners are required to prove the state acted "unreasonably," a tough legal standard that isn't met simply by having credible evidence of innocence or wrongful imprisonment. Prisoners will be limited to one federal appeal within a short time of exhausting state appeals. Federal courts are required to render decisions within six months, and can't overrule state courts' interpretations of constitutional law.

More spending (meaning higher taxes and debt), and more police abuses.
The law authorizes $1 billion in new federal spending over five years. The amount includes an additional $100 million for one of the most terroristic organizations in the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Further restrictions on financial privacy.
The law requires banks to identify any domestic "agents" (undefined) of groups labeled as terrorist, and freeze their funds with no right of appeal.

The original bill contained a provision, supported by the Clinton administration, lifting the historical "Posse Comitatus" restriction on the U.S. military working with domestic police. The provision did not make it into the final version. (That would come years later.)

The law creates an oversight commission for federal police agencies. Even though the commission has no subpoena power and can only make recommendations, then-FBI Director Louis Freeh lobbied against the bill based on this one provision.

The Critics

On April 24, 1995, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a press release quoting their Executive Director Ira Glasser,

In past times of tragedy and fear, the government has harassed, investigated and arrested innocent people solely because of their race, religion, national origin, speech or political beliefs. In the 1920 Palmer raids, thousands were improperly arrested and jailed in 33 cities as a response to a frightening wave of bombings. People were summarily deported based on their national origin and their political association. During World War II, the federal government committed what is now universally seen as an act of racism and war hysteria when it incarcerated Japanese-American citizens. In the 1950s, legitimate fears of Soviet threats were used to convert dissent into disloyalty. People were spied upon and punished on the basis of political beliefs and associations instead of criminal evidence. In the turbulent 1960s, the government again engaged in widespread infiltration and surveillance of organizations opposed to the Vietnam war and those trying to win equality for African-Americans. Again, normal standards of criminal evidence were abandoned; instead, race and political beliefs became a cause for suspicion.

We must now try to avoid that same mistake. The government should certainly investigate vigorously based on criminal evidence. But no one should be targeted because they believe in the Second Amendment, or belong to far right organizations. No matter how much we may disagree with some of those organizations, we must not target people associated with them in the absence of credible evidence of criminal conduct.

Vince Miller, Director of the International Society for Individual Liberty, said the following in an April 26, 1995, message to LiberNet:

The "Counter-Terrorism Bill" however, concentrates enormous police powers in a domestic equivalent of the National Security Council, and gives the President tremendous arbitrary power to declare who is a domestic or overseas "terrorist" -- a decision which this legislation says shall not be subject to appeal! The bill authorizes secret trials for citizens and immigrants who are merely accused of lending support (including humanitarian aid) to domestic or international "terrorist" organizations, and these accusations may be made by anonymous informants.

The bill says that individuals arrested under this act may be declared ineligible for bail, may be detained indefinitely until trial, and will be considered guilty until proven innocent -- the direct opposite of American principles of justice that have protected the freedom of innocent people for over two hundred years.

If the individual cannot somehow prove his or her innocence, than he will be summarily deported if a "green-card" resident, or put in jail for up to 10 years if a citizen -- while still not necessarily having been proven guilty of any real crime.

It is worth noting that if the President has arbitrary standards for declaring individuals or groups "terrorist", standards and targets can change according to short-term political goals. Syria was a "terrorist state" until George Bush needed them to help fight Iraq. Iran has been an alternate ally and enemy, as has Iraq, some Afghan groups, the ANC and numerous others. How is one to know what aid is legal and what may be suddenly not?

The Libertarian Party issued a press release April 27, 1995, on the relationship between the Oklahoma City bombing and the Counterterrorism Bill, saying:

"Law-enforcement agencies should act swiftly to bring the criminals who committed this heinous act to justice, and to punish them to the fullest extent of the law," said Steve Dasbach, Chair of America's third largest political party. "However, we must not dishonor the men, women, and children who died in that brutal and senseless act by linking their tragedy to any effort to undermine fundamental American liberties.

"The freedoms recognized under the Bill of Rights are our strongest bulwark against terrorism," asserted Dasbach. "Security measures that infringe on those freedoms will inevitably lead to abuse, ultimately making us less secure in our lives and property."


Under Clinton's proposal, the FBI would have the power to examine financial, travel, and telephone records, conduct wiretapping, and infiltrate "suspect" groups. Clinton said such powers were needed to protect "our way of life."

"An abiding respect for liberty is our way of life," countered Dasbach.

The Libertarian Party issued another news release on April 18, 1996, unsuccesfully urging the President to veto the bill:

"You don't honor the memory of the dead by depriving the living of their basic freedoms," said the party's National Chair Steve Dasbach. "And you don't protect Americans from hypothetical foreign terrorists by giving more power to government agencies with a history of running roughshod over our civil liberties."


"The fact that Clinton and Congress are trying to link this bill to the Oklahoma City tragedy is political ghoulishness as its worst," said Dasbach. "It shows that there is no tragedy that politicians won't try to capitalize on to further increase the power of government."

Richard Hartman of Spokane, Washington, reported hearing the following exchange on the radio between a reporter and Attorney General Janet Reno:

REPORTER: If the FBI had already possessed the powers described in President Clinton's anti-terrorism legislation, would you have been able to prevent the Oklahoma disaster?


The Supporters

U.S. voters should take note that once again, Republicans and Democrats united to take away your rights. The Libertarian Party was the only political party to publicly oppose the passage of the law.

Sources: April 24, 1995, news releases from ACLU; April 26, 1995, news release from NCARL; April 26, 1995, posting to LiberNet by Vince Miller; April 26, 1995, news release from CNSS; April 27, 1995, and April 18, 1996, news releases from the Libertarian Party; April 15, 1996, New York Times News Service article, "Congressional leaders predict passage of counterterrorism bill by Friday."