WASHINGTON -- Reluctant to erode a prohibition dating back to the Civil War, a Senate committee reacted warily yesterday to an administration proposal to allow the military to help track down terrorists.
Administration representatives stressed to the Senate Judiciary Committee that they were abandoning an earlier proposal -- drafted in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing -- that would have given the military broad authority to take part in all international terrorism investigations.
But even a more limited proposal to bring in the military only in cases involving chemical or biological weapons drew fire.
"Do we want to empower the military to arrest citizens or to conduct searches pursuant to domestic law enforcement?" said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who is chairman of the committee. "I think this would be unwise and would represent an abandonment of principles we hold dear in this society."
The administration is proposing an amendment to an 1878 law, passed in the wake of citizen outrage over the use of troops in the South after the Civil War, that generally bars the Army from acting as police.
The law was amended in 1982 to allow the military to take part in investigations of terrorism involving nuclear weapons.
The president's bill would allow the military to offer "technical assistance" to law-enforcement authorities in cases of chemical or biological terrorism.
The bill bars military personnel from making an arrest, although it allows them to "disable and disarm" suspects who possess such weapons.
Firmly opposed was Casper W. Weinberger, the Reagan administration defense secretary, who testified that the military should be limited to providing training, equipment and advice rather than taking part in hands-on law enforcement.
"When you get the military on the street, that's when it's time, I think, to draw the line," he said.
But a supporter of the Clinton bill, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said he fears that the country may soon be the target of terrorist chemical or biological weapons, like the recent nerve-gas assault in the Tokyo subway system.
"If we have a chemical attack in this country, the demand for military involvement will be overwhelming," Mr. Biden said.
Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, have introduced their own anti-terrorism measure that does not include an expanded role for the military.
If Congress does expand the military's authority in anti-terrorism efforts, a unit at Aberdeen Proving Ground would likely play a key role.
Aberdeen's Technical Escort Unit, with 107 military personnel and civilians, has expertise in detecting, neutralizing and disposing of toxic chemicals and other material.
Although most of the unit is based at Aberdeen, two detachments are stationed in Arkansas and Utah.
The unit helps federal law enforcement agencies deal with terrorist threats or environmental emergencies involving nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or material.
Members of the Army unit recently were dispatched to Disneyland along with other federal officials in response to fears of a nerve-agent attack at the California theme park over Easter weekend.
The Justice Department later said the threat turned out to be a hoax.