Walls of 'Fortress America' rising
Congress is moving on tough bills that would expand surveillance and tighten security at airports and borders.
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Some senators were alarmed that such a controversial and far-reaching measure passed with no hearings and little debate.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."
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.
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.