President Bill Clinton has announced steps designed to grant the Federal Bureau of Investigation new powers to infringe on individual liberties, a move which in normal times would have sparked heated controversy but, in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, can count on widespread popular support.
Mr Clinton will be helped by the findings of the latest CNN/USA Today poll at the weekend, which gave him a 58 per cent approval rating - a jump of 12 points from his 46 per cent score on 17 April, two days before the bombing. The poll also found that 84 per cent of Americans approved of his handling of the crisis.
Mr Clinton said he would ask Congress to approve laws to establish an FBI counter-terrorism centre; to create a fund for the infiltration of suspected domestic terrorist organisations; to give federal agents more authority to monitor the telephone calls and check the hotel, credit card and travel records of suspected terrorists. As the law stands at present, to gain access to such records legally the authorities must have concrete evidence that a criminal act is either under way or planned.
Speaking on CBS television on Sunday night, Mr Clinton also said he would press Congress to pass his proposed Omnibus Anti-terrorist Act, which aims to make it more difficult for international terrorists to enter or stay in the US. The legislation would toughen deportation proceedings and (possibly provoking some wry smirks from those in Britain opposed to Mr Clinton's Ulster policy) place new controls on fund-raising by organisations identified by the President as foreign terrorist groups.
Already American civil liberties groups are bracing themselves for what looks like a losing battle in the climate of rage generated by the Oklahoma outrage, where everything indicates the final death toll will reach the 200 mark. Philip Gutis, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organisation was concerned "about an over-reaction that would threaten to sweep away the constitutional principles that have shaped our society ..."
One senior White House aide said the President's proposals made simple common sense in the light of recent events. Mr Clinton himself defended his proposals on CBS as the logical response to what appeared to be an unprecedented new threat to ordinary Americans. "I don't think we have to give up our liberties," he said, "but I do think we have to have more discipline, and we have to be willing to see serious threats to our liberties properly investigated."
As if directing himself to those on the right wing who have helped generate a climate of hostility towards government, he went on to say in a speech in Minnesota that it was time for citizens to speak out against "the purveyors of hatred and division, the promoters of paranoia...the loud and angry voices of America". "Their bitter words," he said, "can have consequences".
While individuals and action groups will raise protests, Mr Clinton is unlikely to face much opposition from his Republican opponents, as eager as he is to be seen to be responding to the popular mood. Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, said on Saturday that the FBI should be granted new powers of anti-terrorist surveillance, a call to which Mr Clinton instantly responded. Otherwise Mr Gingrich has remained unusually muted since the bomb blast - as have all other senior Republicans including Bob Dole, Phil Gramm and other contenders to challenge for the presidency.
Leading article, page 14
The enemy within, page 17Reuse content