Warren Richey, staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, talked with csmonitor.com about how new homeland security legislation affects America's balance between security and freedom.
csmonitor.com: What does the homeland security bill seek to accomplish?
Mr. Richey: "The homeland security bill is aimed at streamlining the efforts of the government to prevent or respond to acts of terrorism carried out within the United States. It seeks to do it by organizing a number of federal agencies with related missions under one umbrella Homeland Security Department.
"For example, currently the Immigration and Naturalization Service and US Border Patrol are under the Justice Department, while the Customs Service and Secret Service are under the Department of the Treasury, and the Coast Guard is under the Transportation Department. All would play a key role in helping to prevent suspected terrorists from entering the country, and the idea is that they would be more effective in that role if they all worked within the same department for the same immediate boss."
csmonitor.com: Does this bill rearrange the deck chairs or build a whole new ship?
"Much of the bill is a rearranging of chairs, but the import of that reorganization is a concentration of power that may make it easier for the government to act swiftly and decisively to counter perceived threats.
"Some critics suggest that this is the wrong time to undertake such a massive reorganization. They note that the United States waged and won World War II before attempting to form what is today the Department of Defense. Some suggest government officials should be focused on responding to the ongoing threat of terrorism rather than drawing up interoffice flow charts and engaging in the inevitable interagency power struggles. Supporters say reorganization will make the job of protecting the nation that much more effective. They say it is tangible proof to everyone that homeland security is now among the highest priorities of the government.
csmonitor.com: How does this legislation effect the long-term balance between security and freedom in the US?
"It is too soon to answer this question with any certainty. Ultimately, the answer will depend on how aggressively the Bush administration seeks to carry out its mission. Critics say the bill provides a blueprint for the establishment of a variety of police state and Big Brother tactics that would never survive congressional scrutiny in more peaceful times. For example, efforts to mandate a national ID card have been repeatedly defeated. But the current bill calls for minimum national standards for all state-issued driver's licenses. The end result? A national ID card, although issued by 50 different states.
"Secrecy is also a chief concern among critics. The Homeland Security Department's actions will largely be exempt from Freedom of Information Act oversight by ordinary citizens and will be subject to a decreased level of congressional oversight, critics say.
"Congress has, to a large extent, left it to the Bush administration to take actions it deems necessary. Critics say this is a blank check that could seriously erode civil liberties by opening the door to widespread surveillance, including creation of a centralized databank collecting all available electronic information on individuals. Supporters say tough measures are necessary during tough times. They stress that the administration will not abuse its powers.
csmonitor.com: "What aspects of the bill could become targets of constitutional challenges?
"Two areas top the list, the extensive reliance on secrecy and any attempt to use US military personnel for domestic law enforcement. For nearly 125 years, it has been illegal for any federal troops to be used directly in law enforcement actions within US borders.
"The so-called Posse Comitatus Act was passed in part out of practical considerations. Soldiers are trained to shoot and kill the enemy. Law officers are trained to safeguard life and property by upholding the law. But the Posse Comitatus Act is also a recognition that the framers of the Constitution had a deep distrust of centralized power, particularly centralized military power that might be used against the people. State militias were preferred over a national army. In times of major disaster or emergency, it has been state governors - not the president - who call out that state's contingent of the national guard. This tradition and legal posture could change if the Bush administration seeks the ability to unilaterally deploy military power to any place in the nation where there is a perceived or actual terror threat. A second area of potential constitutional challenge is the use of secrecy within the Homeland Security Department. For example, in accord with the recent ruling of a federal appeals court, Homeland Security officials could apply to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court for secret authorization to electronically monitor an individual in the US suspected of terrorist ties. If the person was a visa-holder, he could be taken into custody and held without notification of any of his family member or access to a lawyer. Citing national security, his hearing before an immigration judge could be conducted in secret, including withholding all information about his presence at the court from clerk's office records. The individual could then be deported to a country with a particularly ruthless in! telligence service that nonetheless maintained friendly relations with the US. The resulting interrogation may or may not yield valuable intelligence to help identify other suspects in the US. Critics of this type of treatment see police state tactics that violate fundamental aspects of American liberty. Supporters see a hard-fisted and effective way to root out those within the US who may be plotting mass murder and destruction.
csmonitor.com: "In what ways might the bill constrain personal freedoms?"
"It will help the government identify potential suspects. After that, anyone identified as a potential terrorist or even a possible associate of a terrorist may be subject to surveillance, interrogation, and secret detention. If the president determines the suspect is an "enemy combatant," that person - even a US citizen - may be held indefinitely, without access to a lawyer or family members, in a military prison. If the suspect has visa status, he may be interrogated and then deported after a secret hearing. Overall, the impact on personal freedoms will depend on the person involved. A Sunday school teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, probably will notice little change. But a Muslim prayer leader in Brooklyn, N.Y. sympathetic to radical Islamic causes will soon be under a federal microscope, if he isn't already."