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America wrestles with privacy vs. security

From driver's licenses to domestic spying, recent debates test public values amid terror war.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 2005



The recent attacks in London by home-grown terrorists have intensified attention on homeland security in the US. And that in turn has raised new questions about protecting civil liberties and privacy during a new kind of war that knows no national borders.

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There's no doubt that Americans are concerned about both.

A poll this week finds that 86 percent of those surveyed believe it's likely that another major terrorist attack will occur in this country, with nearly half saying such an attack is "very likely."

Americans clearly favor stronger measures to protect US borders and facilities like chemical and nuclear plants, according to the survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. Most people also favor renewing the USA Patriot Act, according to the poll. This controversial law, passed just after the attacks of September 11, gives law enforcement agencies more powers to identify and detain suspected terrorists. Many of its key provisions are due to expire this year, and there's an effort in Congress to extend those provisions or make them permanent.

But there are also a cluster of legal and political threads that - woven together - could act as a restraint on efforts to strengthen domestic security at a time of increased terrorist threats. Among them:

• The case of Brandon Mayfield in Portland, Ore. He's the young American lawyer, a convert to Islam and the husband of an Egyptian woman, who was erroneously linked to the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people. Although the federal government officially apologized, Mr. Mayfield is suing to find out what information federal agents had gathered on him. In a case in federal court now underway, he contends that FBI wiretaps and secret searches of his home, not to mention locking him up for two weeks - all conducted under the Patriot Act - are unconstitutional.

• Recent revelations that the FBI has been gathering thousands of pages of intelligence on such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the environmental group Greenpeace. Other groups that have been part of peaceful protests find that they are being investigated as well. "There is no need to open a counterterrorism file when people are simply exercising their First Amendment rights," says Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU.

• Efforts to use state driver's licenses as a tool for intelligence gathering on foreigners. At the annual meeting of the National Governors Association recently, chairman Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas, echoed other critics in warning that driver's licenses could become de facto national identity cards.

• The extension of US military activity into domestic intelligence-gathering and law enforcement. This raises questions about the legal restrictions on domestic military activity known as "posse comitatus," restrictions that date back to 1878.

The Pentagon justified this extension in a report last month titled "Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support." Pentagon officials wrote: "Our adversaries consider US territory an integral part of a global theater of combat. We must therefore have a strategy that applies to the domestic context the key principles that are driving the transformation of US power projection and joint expeditionary warfare."

What military leaders see as a new threat at home, others see differently.

"In the absence of clear guidelines and effective oversight, the US military is becoming increasingly involved in domestic operations, including surveillance activities that blur the traditional distinction between foreign intelligence and domestic security," warns the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy.

Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee last month approved an expansion of FBI investigative powers enabling it to issue "administrative subpoenas" for personal information without judicial authorization. Senator Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon warns that the move "raises the risk of real abuse."

"Doing so would give the FBI the authority to demand just about anything from just about anybody, with no independent check, simply by claiming that it is relevant to a national security investigation," says Mr. Wyden.

For now, the focus is on reauthorization of the Patriot Act.

A bill in the House of Representatives, which was taken up on the floor Thursday, would extend all provisions of the law that are set to expire in December. But proposed amendments would limit the law, ending "roving wiretaps" and adding judicial oversight to search and seizure provisions. On Tuesday, a coalition of organizations - ranging from Americans for Tax Reform on the right to the ACLU on the left - urged caution in reauthorizing the act, noting that some sections now violate civil liberties.

Speaking in Baltimore Wednesday, President Bush said, "This is no time to let our guard down, and no time to roll back good laws."

"The Patriot Act is expected to expire, but the terrorist threats will not expire," Mr. Bush said. "I expect, and the American people expect, the United States Congress and the United States Senate to renew the Patriot Act, without weakening our ability to fight terror, and they need to get that bill to my desk soon."

The President would like to see that happen without amendments to the law, but that seems unlikely.

Sen. Wyden, a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence, describes the process of reauthorizing this controversial legislation as a "high-wire act."

"Success means striking a balance, an equilibrium, between fiercely protecting our country from terrorism while still preserving the privacy and civil liberties that make our democracy so precious," he says.

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