Wisdom at the Border

Better screening of people entering the US may nab potential terrorists. But it won't be easy. It will require billions more in spending, long delays at ports of entry, and, perhaps, restrictions on certain civil liberties. Then there are sensitive legal issues, such as the use of classified information to prosecute those suspected of being involved in terrorism.

As Congress takes up a variety of Bush administration-driven legislation designed to curb terrorist activities, lawmakers will need to balance civil liberties with maintaining vigilance and order. At the same time, Congress should act to make it easier to deport terrorists who are operating within the US and known to be connected to Osama bin Laden.

Officials at US ports of entry, both air and land, largely depend on an extensive database of names of criminals - suspected drug dealers, human rights violators, suspected or known terrorists. Often dubbed the "lookout" system, this database is only as reliable as the intelligence-gathering that feeds it.

Even thornier issues surface over the need to track individuals after they've gained entry into the US (international students, for example).

Stepping up immigration controls on the long borders with Canada and Mexico will take more officers and technology not yet invented. Still, some new technologies can be put in place that will help immigration officials do their jobs.

The emerging field of biometrics - using voice, hand, or facial recognition - holds promise. Some experts argue that individuals on the front line at ports of entry also need law enforcement status so they can work more effectively with police, the FBI, and other agencies.

For their part, State Department visa screeners, not wholly unlike airport-security screeners, are on the lowest rung of the State Department's career ladder. They can be augmented with more senior officials.

As the government moves forward with needed changes, it must continually ask the question: "How will these changes affect the lives of law-abiding ordinary citizens?"

That should help preserve the balance between civil liberties and effective enforcement of laws.

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