Walls of 'Fortress America' rising
Congress is moving on tough bills that would expand surveillance and tighten security at airports and borders.
Washington is on the verge of enacting - quickly - the most sweeping changes in law enforcement in a generation. Aimed at thwarting terrorists, they also will touch the lives of almost every American.Skip to next paragraph
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A draft wish list from the Bush administration now circulating in Congress asks for broad new powers to eavesdrop, control borders, and collect and share information about citizens, students, and visitors to the United States.
At first glance, it looks as if most of the changes apply just to suspected terrorists or those who support them. But experts say the impact could be much broader.
"People always think such new laws won't apply to them, but it's tough if you get caught up in the dragnet," says Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
The impact of new laws and regulations will be most obvious to people traveling or crossing borders. Passengers will find more metal detectors, cameras, and checkpoints at airports. This means Americans can expect fewer flights and more delays, indefinitely.
Along the US-Canada border, where 200 million people cross each year, the wait at checkpoints will also lengthen dramatically. Concern about the number of Islamic extremists entering the US from north of the border has already forced authorities to tighten security.
Now the screening is set to get even more stringent, threatening to create gridlock.
What will be less obvious in its impact - but no less far reaching - are congressional moves to allow the government to accumulate more information about the movements, beliefs, and financial transactions of its citizens. This includes giving authorities more power to detain and prosecute people.
"We need these tools to fight the terrorist threat which exists in the United States," said Attorney General John Ashcroft last week.
Terrorist experts say there are tough tradeoffs involved in many of these new provisions. For example, the use of cameras with face recognition software around airports and public places can help track terrorists. Yet it also gives government the capacity to track all citizens.
"We might have to give the government much more access to our personal goings-on to protect our overall security," says Michael Swetnam, president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a nonprofit group here.
Many of the items on the attorney general's wish list have been a goal of law-enforcement officials for years, but were blocked by Congress because of concerns that they violated civil liberties.
But the massive security break that produced the Sept. 11 attacks has changed the climate in Washington so dramatically that much on this list is expected to pass into law quickly.
One of the first bills expected to move through Congress is the administration's request for broader wiretap authority. Current federal law allows authorities to tap the phone of a suspect. The attorney general wants authority to track conversations of suspected terrorists across any state - on any phone, pay phone, or cellphone that the suspect may use - including e-mail and unanswered voice-messages.
By casting a broader net, law-enforcement officials hope to be able to track terrorists who change cell phones and venues frequently. But civil rights groups warn that the conversations of many Americans unrelated to terrorists could also be picked up in the process.
"Every year, 2 million communications are intercepted involving people who weren't even suspected of any crimes, according to the government's own data," says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. "That number would be increased exponentially under the new law, because it allows roving wiretaps that follow that person to any telephone that person might use."
When the Clinton administration sought broader wiretap authority in 1994, Congress balked. But lawmakers this time seem inclined to move it through quickly.
Two days after the assault on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, the Senate passed by voice vote an amendment that gives government new authority to search the contents of computers.