Security act to pervade daily lives
WASHINGTON — When you board a plane in the next year, your pilot may be armed. Make a call from a pay phone at the ballpark, and it may be tapped. Pay for a sandwich with a credit card, and the transaction may wind up in an electronic file with your tax returns, travel history, and speeding tickets.
These are some of the ways that the biggest reorganization of the federal government in half a century could trickle down into the minutiae of the daily life of Americans.
The Homeland Security Act that President Bush is poised to sign is sweeping in scope and will have big consequences, intended and unintended, on everything from civil liberties of Americans to due process for immigrants.
Some have little to do with homeland security, but emerged out of the intensive, last-minute bargaining that shaped this effort to refocus the nation's resources to defeat terrorism. As votes on the historic bill wrapped up this week, most lawmakers were still rifling through its 484 pages to find out what's there.
"The statute is elephantine," says Allen Weinstein, president of the Center for Democracy in Washington. "It means we're probably going to have to deal with a law of unintended consequences."
While debate in Congress focused on bargaining rights of federal workers and the fate of mammoth agencies, many features of this bill reach deep into the fabric of American life.
Among the implications:
• New authority for agencies to collect and mine data on individuals and groups, including databases that combine personal, governmental, and corporate records - including e-mails and websites viewed.
• Limits on the information citizens can request under the Freedom of Information Act, and criminal penalties for government employees who leak information. This was a top priority for business groups, who worry that disclosing critical information to the new department could expose corporate secrets or vulnerabilities to competitors or terrorists. "Companies feel they need this, because without it they will be less willing to share this information," says Joe Rubin, director of congressional affairs for the US Chamber of Commerce.
• More latitude for government advisory committees to meet in secret - not subject to the requirements of the open meeting laws. If Dick Cheney's controversial meetings with energy companies in 2001 were held under the bill's provisions, they could be kept secret if deemed to be "national-security related."
• Limits on liability for those who manufacture "antiterrorism technologies," including vaccines, gas masks, and baggage screening equipment. As a condition for their votes, several Senate moderates have an agreement from House leaders to revisit some of these provisions when the 108th Congress convenes in January.
• New powers to government officials to declare national health emergencies, including quarantines and forced vaccination.
"We could see a situation in this country where you are going to have forced use of vaccines and no accountability for those who make them. It's a prescription for tyranny," says Barbara Loe Fisher, cofounder of the National Vaccine Information Center.
While critical of many features of this bill, civil liberties activists welcome a provision that bans the controversial "terrorism information and prevention system" (TIPS), first proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"It was a very bad idea that would have enlisted neighbors and the general public to become amateur snoops for homeland security purposes ... evading the constitutional protections government has to comply with when they do surveillance. It's a victory to get this out of the bill," says Tim Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Still, groups on the left and right worry the act has pitfalls for individual privacy and liberty.
It's the second time in half a century that Washington has revamped its bureaucracy to meet new defense needs. After World War II, President Truman unified the armed services around a new Department of Defense - a process that took decades. Some say it's not done yet.
The new Department of Homeland Security is an even more complex undertaking. The terrorist foe is more agile and obscure than the lumbering nation-states that were the object of Truman's reorganization.
Even as the final votes were being tallied, senators were already calling for modifications in the law in January.
What especially concerns privacy groups is the capacity of the new law to centralize all the snooping activities allowed by the Patriot Act, passed after the 9/11 attacks. Lisa Dean, director of the Free Congress Foundation says Americans eventually "may find that their conversations have been monitored or [that they've been] caught walking past a surveillance camera and be outraged, but find they have no legal recourse."