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Hopes Dim for Fast Action on Anti-Terrorism Measure

August 02, 1996|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Negotiations on the details of anti-terrorism legislation broke down in partisan acrimony Thursday, dashing President Clinton's hopes that Congress would pass the measure before adjourning for its August recess.

The talks stalled when House Republicans mounted stiff opposition to a proposal to expand federal wiretapping authority.

Although some Republicans held out hope that legislation could be patched together and passed--if not this week, soon after Congress reconvenes in September--the dispute laid bare divisions that may be difficult to bridge.

"We've come a long way; we should go the rest of the way," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a member of a bipartisan task force that met through the day Thursday to try to work out the details of a tentative agreement on anti-terrorism measures that had been announced Wednesday night by top congressional and administration officials.

But for now, Hatch said Thursday night, "I think it's dead."

The talks broke off after conservative Republicans demanded that the expanded wiretap authority be accompanied by stiff new privacy protections. Democrats countered that the privacy provisions would cripple law enforcement.

And liberal Democrats contributed to the deadlock by reviving demands for expanding a study of placing chemical tracers known as "taggants" in ammunition--a provision bitterly fought by many Republicans and the gun lobby.

The wrangling came on a day when FBI Director Louis J. Freeh told lawmakers that the United States has been the target of "an increasing war" being waged by terrorists and that authorities need more tools, including broader authority to tap telephone lines.

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Freeh asked for authority to install multi-point wiretaps, which would enable law enforcement officers to eavesdrop on cellular telephones and other new technology. He denied that it would lead to abuse by police.

Administration and congressional officials have been working all week to respond to Clinton's request for a bipartisan anti-terrorism initiative in the wake of the crash of TWA Flight 800, the pipe bomb explosion at the Atlanta Olympics and other recent acts of suspected terrorism.

Those officials announced Wednesday night that they had agreed to the broad outlines of an anti-terrorism bill, including provisions for multi-point wiretaps, increased airport security and the establishment of a commission to reassess U.S. anti-terrorism policy.

But the agreement bogged down as staff worked through the night to put meat on the bare-bone recommendations that had been endorsed.

The wiretapping proposals, for instance, have been opposed by civil libertarians and conservative Republicans who see them as a threat to privacy rights.

In negotiations with Democrats and the administration, House GOP task force members insisted on linking any wiretap proposals to new privacy protections that would allow people under investigation to file personal lawsuits against law enforcement officers who improperly collect information through wiretaps. Republicans said their privacy concerns were fueled by the controversy surrounding the White House's improper acquisition of confidential FBI files.

Democrats objected that the proposed privacy protections would have a chilling effect on law enforcement investigations.

House Democrats, meanwhile, revived demands for the "taggant" study, which would lay the groundwork for possible rules requiring ammunition manufacturers to add the tracer chemicals to smokeless and black powder. The administration had backed down from that proposal Wednesday night when negotiators first announced their agreement in principle on the key elements of the legislation.

The developments came as the National Transportation Safety Board reported that rough weather off the coast of Long Island prevented Navy and civilian diving crews from making any further progress in recovering victims or aircraft parts from TWA Flight 800.

Times staff writers Richard A. Serrano and Art Pine also contributed to this story.

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