ALBANY, N.Y. -- The state Legislature cracked down on terrorism Monday by passing bills that Gov. George Pataki said provide the "legal and strategic weapons" to prevent future terror tragedies.
Less than a week after the World Trade Center attack devastated New York City and the nation, legislators met in special session at Pataki's direction and passed the bills with only scattered opposition.
Pataki quickly signed the measures into law during a ceremony at the Javits Center in Manhattan, not far from the shattered towers of the Trade Center.
The legislation made terrorism a capital crime in New York and defined what it is--the commission of an offense designed to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population" or "influence the policy of a unit of government."
For nonfatal assaults by terrorists, the legislation advanced penalties for offenses and made a modest extension of wiretapping rules when the targets are suspected terrorists.
The package also made it a violent felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison for people who solicit terrorist activities. In addition, it created punishment of up to 25 years in state prison for those who harbor a terrorist or give them money, transportation or weapons.
State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said federal officials asked the state to approve the changes because they thought it might be of help to New York City and state authorities assisting in the ongoing World Trade Center investigation.
A top Pataki administration official who asked not to be identified said that while any suspect caught in connection with the World Trade Center attack is ultimately likely to be prosecuted under federal laws and not the new state statutes, several of the new laws adopted Monday could still help in the investigation. He said they include the stiff new punishments for those who harbor or otherwise assist known terrorists.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver conceded that the effects of the new laws on terror investigations and prosecutors on the state level are unclear.
"It is overkill?" Silver asked. "It may very well be overkill. But at this time I think it's very important to show the unity of our purpose and not question political motivation in presenting this (package) at this time."
Bruno brushed aside concerns that the anti-terrorism bills go too far.
"There's a natural concern by some people that you don't want to overreact and go too far in dealing with people's civil liberties," Bruno said. "From my point of view, now is the time if we're going to overreact, we overreact in terms of protecting potential victims, the innocent people, and not worry in the least about coddling potential criminals."
State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the state Senate and Pataki pushed a bill to create "roving" wiretap authority for prosecutors investigating suspected terrorists. But Assembly officials said that while they discussed the issue briefly, they never got a proposed bill from Pataki providing for the "roving" wiretaps on Monday. The issue is likely to come up again, all sides agreed.
Roving wiretaps are based on suspected individual terrorists and apply to the conventional telephones, cell phones and computers they may use. Traditionally, authorities have sought wire taps on individual telephone lines to gather information against suspects, but police say that has become less effective with the advent of cell phones which can be easily discarded for new ones.
Even in New York, where most New York City-area legislators knew someone who died or was injured in the Trade Center catastrophe, there was not unanimity about the anti-terrorist bills.
Democratic state Sen. Thomas Duane said the loss and destruction in his lower Manhattan district is "staggering."
Still, he voted against terrorist bills Monday.
"I'm against the death penalty," Duane said. "This bill contains a new category for capital punishment. I also believe the responsibility for punishing those who would dare use a weapon of mass destruction lies with the federal government."
A handful of death penalty opponents in the state Assembly also voted against terrorist bills on the same grounds as Duane.
An anti-hunger activist who is active in the state's Green Party, Mark Dunlea, called passage of the anti-terrorism legislation "outrageous." Dunlea said the new laws would not apply to the World Trade Center case and predicted they would be used to trample on the rights of innocent Americans
"They are being rushed through in an effort to weaken the very democracy we should be protecting from terrorists," Dunlea said.
Copyright (c) 2001, The Associated Press
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