Walls of 'Fortress America' rising

Congress is moving on tough bills that would expand surveillance and tighten security at airports and borders.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

New life for old agenda

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.

Some senators were alarmed that such a controversial and far-reaching measure passed with no hearings and little debate.

"Maybe that will make us feel safer," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who opposed the amendment. "Maybe. And maybe what the terrorists have done made us a little bit less safe. Maybe they have increased Big Brother in this country."

The wish list

Other requests to be taken up by Congress in the next two weeks include:

• Granting the attorney general discretion to detain any individual determined to "pose a threat to national security." Such a decision could only be challenged in federal court in the District of Columbia.

• Giving authorities at border checkpoints and consular offices electronic access to crime, intelligence, and immigration data from many federal agencies to help identify high-risk travelers.

• Imposing stiffer penalties on anyone who harbors or supports terrorists. The law would also allow the confiscation of the property of terrorists, and DNA samples to be collected of all people convicted of terrorist crimes.

• Allowing the use of information collected by foreign governments against American citizens, even if the collection violates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Public-interest groups worry that many of these provisions go too far and are likely to stay in place even after the threat to national security diminishes.

"There's no question that a concerted attempt is being pursued to take advantage of the attack as an opening for government to secure a wide variety of powers that it has raised over the years," says Tom Devine, legal director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project. "Many of the items in the legislative package aren't directly relevant to the events of September 11."

It's a balance between security and civil liberties that governments have often had to strike in wartime. During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus to allow the government to detain people indefinitely without trial. President Roosevelt authorized the internment of some 100,000 ethnic Japanese during World War II, and Congress approved his action.

However, Congress rejected President Wilson's request for censorship during World War I.

"In any civilized society, the most important task is achieving a proper balance between freedom and order," writes Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist in his 1998 book "All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime." "In wartime, reason and history both suggest that this balance shifts to some degree in favor of order - in favor of the government's ability to deal with conditions that threaten the national well-being."

But he warns that the use of war as an excuse for reining in liberties can be abused. "It is all too easy to slide from a case of genuine military necessity, where the power sought to be exercised is at least debatable, to one where the threat is not critical and the power either dubious or nonexistent," he adds.

Laws that won't disappear

Civil rights groups worry that, once enacted, tough new laws may be difficult to get off the books.

Before the recent attacks, the Justice Department and a bipartisan group in Congress had been meeting to discuss repealing the use of secret evidence, not shared with defendants, in cases involving criminal aliens or terrorists - procedures adopted after the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing.

Earlier this year, the attorney general told Congress he would not use secret evidence until Congress reexamined the issue.

But in response to a question on this issue last week, Mr. Ashcroft declined to say he still supported that course.

"We're going to do everything we can to harmonize the constitutional rights of individuals with every legal capacity we can muster to also protect the safety and security of individuals," he said.

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