WASHINGTON – Maryland lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Friday for a federal anti-terrorism bill that greatly expands police power on searches, wiretapping and the use of electronic surveillance to track terror suspects.
Seven of the state’s eight House members voted for the bill, which passed 337-79. In Maryland, only Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, voted against it.
The House vote came just hours after the Senate overwhelmingly passed a virtually identical measure, which was supported by both Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes. That bill passed late Thursday night on a 96-1 vote.
The lopsided votes came despite concerns by many in Congress about potential harm to civil liberties, even among those who ultimately voted for the measure.
“The level of sophistication of the terrorists warrants this response,” said Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville.
Cummings could not be contacted Friday to discuss his vote.
The legislation, which lawmakers have been under pressure to pass since the Sept. 11 attacks, will eliminate some of the hurdles that law enforcement officials say have hindered their ability to track suspected terrorists. A proposal to limit the wider police powers solely to terrorism investigations failed, however.
Under the bills, police will be able to get “roving” wiretap authority, which will allow them to eavesdrop on a suspect even if that person changes phone lines, without having to get separate authorization. The wiretap law will also be expanded to include cable companies that provide telephone and Internet service.
“Our intelligence had been operating on a kind of the rotary-phone technology,” said Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda. “It was becoming very outdated, and this bill will bring them into the digital age.”
The bills will also limit the rights of foreigners in the United States, allowing authorities to detain them for up to a week without charging them with a crime. The current detention limit is 48 hours.
Some lawmakers were concerned about the bills’ effect on civil liberties, but were confident that those issues could be rectified.
“We need to do all we can as quickly as we can to find the terrorists, dismantle their network and make the world safer,” Gilchrest said. “And as we go through this process, we should be very conscious of its effect on civil liberties.”
The House bill includes a provision to reverse the changes in three years, with the possibility of a two-year extension. The House version had called for a two-year “sunset” provision, but it was rewritten at the last minute. The Senate bill has no such provision.
Morella called the bill necessary, but not flawless: She would rather have seen the two-year sunset, for example.
“It’s not perfect,” she said. “By and large, it’s a bill that would give the adequate mechanisms and tools to uproot terrorism.”
Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, said he was upset that the House bill was rewritten between Thursday and Friday to look more like the Senate version. He voted for the bill, after Democratic attempts to send it back to committee failed.
“We’re disappointed that the bill that was worked on in the Judiciary Committee is not the one that was brought forth today,” he said Friday. “We didn’t know that there was going to be a change until we got here this morning.”