Senate Approves Aviation Security, Anti-Terrorism Bills

The Senate passed two major security bills just before midnight Thursday, one month after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed nearly 5,400 people.

The Aviation Security Act seeks to immediately improve airline security and the public’s confidence in flying. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC), received all 100 Senate votes.

This proposal would federalize most of airport security by creating over 28,000 Justice Department jobs to screen all passengers and luggage at 142 major airports. Currently, airlines contract private security companies to screen passengers. Frequently, contracts are awarded to the lowest-bidding private company and most airport screeners receive low pay and minimal training.

Airlines generally approve of the Senate bill, particularly since it would be paid for with a $2.50 security surcharge on all passenger tickets. The cost is estimated at between $1.2 billion and $2 billion per year.

“This is a function of government,” said Sen. Hollings. “No one is putting in measures to privatize the Capitol police or the Secret Service. We are going to give some protection to the traveling public.”

Other provisions of the bill would mandate background checks for all airport employees with access to private areas, reinforce cockpit doors, place armed federal guards on flights, and authorize the FAA to allow properly trained pilots to carry guns.

The Bush administration commended the Senate for acting, but both President Bush and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta expressed concern that the federalization of airport security would be difficult.

The Senate’s aviation bill faces potential problems in the House where some Republicans oppose the provision to federalize security. Majority Whip Tom DeLay, for one, said he will vehemently oppose any attempt to make screeners federal employees.

Anti-terror bill

The Senate also passed a major anti-terrorist bill that would expand law enforcement’s power to surveil suspected terrorists.

The Senate’s 234-page bill, named Uniting and Strengthening America (USA) Act, passed with a 96 to 1 vote, with the dissenting vote from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI).

Substantial provisions of the USA Act would permit “roving wiretap” court orders so law enforcement could monitor all phone lines used by suspects, instead of the current single phone line wiretap. Law enforcement would gain greater subpeona power on electronic forms of communication, such as the records of e-mail transmission and Internet use.

The bill would also allow authorities to detain noncitizens for seven days without specific charges. The Bush administration originally requested the right to detain noncitizens indefinitely without formal charges. The statute of limitations would be eliminated for major terrorist crimes.

Current restrictions on information sharing between grand juries, law enforcement, and intelligence officers would be relaxed.

Regulations concerning money laundering would implement stricter methods of recording financial transactions and restrict the use of off-shore “shell” banks, or independent banks without major offices.

The bill also triples the number of Border Patrol, Customs Service, and Immigration and Naturalization Service officers stationed along the Canada-U.S. border and allots $100 million to update the technology used along the northern border.

Sen. Feingold attempted to delay the bill’s approval, arguing that it violated privacy rights and granted intelligence agencies too much authority.

The American Civil Liberties Union disputes the Senate’s anti-terrorism legislation on similar grounds that it violates basic civil liberties and immigrant rights.

The House’s anti-terrorism bill, hammered out by Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and ranking Democrat John Conyers (D-Mich.) last week, shares many of the Senate’s anti-terrorism provisions.

The House’s bill, called the PATRIOT Act –acronym for the act to “Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism” — differs from the Senate’s bill primarily in its “sunset” limits which put an expiration date of 2003 on certain provisions, unless renewed by Congress.

Civil rights organizations, such as the ACLU, say the House’s bill is significantly less threatening to civil rights than the Senate’s because of the sunset provisions.

The House bill also differs from the Senate’s USA Act with its omission of provisions concerning financial records and money laundering.