Defining Terrorism Stirs Words of Dispute

Los Angeles Times
October 1 2001

WASHINGTON -- One of the hardest issues facing lawmakers who are writing new antiterrorism legislation is the one that many might see as the easiest: What is "terrorism"?

All agree that a politically motivated attack that kills innocent civilians, such as the destruction of the World Trade Center, is terrorism at its worst.

But the Justice Department has proposed to define "terrorism" so broadly that some lawmakers fear it would include a teenage computer hacker or a protester who tosses a rock through the window of a federal building.

And because the government wants to prosecute all those who "harbor" or "conspire" with terrorists, a loose definition could brand thousands of protesters as conspirators in a terrorist plot.

Senate aides and administration lawyers negotiated over the weekend on the details of the law, and some progress was reported.

"We want to limit it [terrorist offenses] to situations where death or serious bodily injured is involved. The administration people said they see merit in that suggestion," a Senate aide involved in the negotiations said Sunday.

The two sides hope to reach agreement on the legislation early this week.

Because terrorism is not one crime but many, Justice Department lawyers opted for an open-ended definition. Their draft bill defines a "federal terrorism offense" by referring to 35 other crimes. They range from destroying an aircraft or assassinating the president, to offenses such as "injury to government property" or "computer trespass."

This set off alarms among civil libertarians.

"It's a huge concern," said Rachel King, a legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "People involved in the demonstrations at the World Bank or protesting the bombing missions near Vieques Island may fall within the definition" of terrorists in the Justice Department's bill.

"I won't argue with [Atty. Gen. John] Ashcroft's logic that says he needs the tools to fight terrorism. But we don't want to end up with a bill that allows them to reach out and wiretap thousands of people because they went to a meeting or rally," she said.

The ACLU proposed terrorism offenses be limited to those where perpetrators cause or intend to cause a death or serious injury.

But the fears are not limited to those on the political left.

Defining terrorism is "the hardest" policy question lawmakers face, said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

The challenge, he said, is coming up with a definition that is wide enough to give law enforcement and U.S. intelligence the latitude they need to prevent further attacks, yet narrow enough to protect the civil liberties of the innocent.

"The trouble is, 'terrorism' is a very broad word, and it lends itself to a lot of mischief for people who would abuse common sense," Goss said.

As an example, he cited the bombings of abortion clinics.

"To me, that's not the kind of terrorism I'm talking about," Goss said. "That's criminal law enforcement. But it would fit most broad definitions of terrorism because the purpose [of such bombings] is to scare people."

In the 1970s, Congress set out to attack organized crime with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, but inadvertently created problems by writing an open-ended law. RICO, defined racketeering by citing a long list of other crimes, including such all-purpose offenses as "mail fraud."

This gave prosecutors many new weapons against the mob, but the same law was also used in civil suits against accountants, stockbrokers and travel agents, among others. They were accused of putting in the mail misleading company reports, stock offers or travel bargains--and, therefore, were branded in lawsuits as racketeers.

Senate aides are focusing the law on the most serious offenses, in which civilians are killed or seriously injured, and are excluding those acts that can be punished as ordinary crimes.

For example, a computer hacker may tap into a government system and put jokes onto a government Web site. While this is a criminal offense, congressional aides acknowledged, it would not seem to deserve the label of "terrorism"--and a potential death sentence. However, they added, if the computer hacker tapped into the air traffic control system with the intent of bringing down an aircraft, that action would be prosecuted as terrorism.

Other lawmakers have proposed a slightly broader definition of terrorism that appears in other federal statutes. It includes "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

This definition has the virtue of focusing on those who use violence for political causes.

Americans, Goss said, would be surprised to learn how many of their neighbors engage in "terrorist activity" if that phrase is defined to include contributions to organizations with links to terrorism.

The "incidental, perhaps unknowing or unwitting, support for organizations that are laundering money for terrorist cells is widespread," he said. "All over this country are people who are sympathizers for causes in their forebears' countries. The continent of Africa and even the troubles in Ireland come to mind."

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