Broad powers could curtail civil liberties

Rights: Groups say legislation misses the mark in fighting terrorism.

September 24, 2001|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

In the wake of terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, civil libertarians are sounding the alarm over electronic surveillance proposals aimed at helping law enforcement catch hijackers and bombers before they commit their crimes.

They're worried about how the FBI and other police agencies plan to intercept information transmitted by the electronic gadgets - computers, cellular telephones and pagers - that have become ubiquitous in American life. And that unease crosses political and ideological lines, with both conservative and liberal organizations calling for Congress to take the Bush administration's emergency law enforcement bills off the fast track.

Last week, 150 organizations banded together as the In Defense of Freedom coalition with the goal of protecting civil rights across the board.

Until now, most of the debate about electronic privacy and security has revolved around Internet retailers collecting and disseminating personal information about customers. But the terms changed drastically after hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

Now the Bush administration has asked Congress for a series of measures that would expand the federal government's ability to track information about potential terrorists through electronic means. And federal law enforcement authorities want Congress to act in days, not months.

Although Justice Department officials didn't return telephone calls late last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke of the urgency in working with Congress to pass new legislation quickly. Justice officials have said they need tools that quickly allow them to collect information on terrorists, who can be moving targets.

Civil libertarians say the electronic eavesdropping proposals they've seen appear to be of little use in fighting terrorism, yet could easily be used to broadly target law-abiding citizens for political reasons. Given the nation's history of law enforcement mischief - hundreds of thousands of people indiscriminately monitored during the Civil Rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s - Congress should move cautiously, they say.

"I think the thing that is most alarming is the panicked atmosphere in which this is being considered," says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, a government watchdog group based in San Francisco. She points to the Senate's passage of the Combating Terrorism Act of 2001, the only legislation to reach Congress so far, which would allow federal authorities to tap telephones without a court order.

In approving the bill just days after the assault at the World Trade Center, the Senate spent less than 30 minutes debating it.

"It was a very complicated act and it was clear that most senators had no idea what they were voting on," Cohn said.

"This is going to be a process, not an event," added J. Bradley Jansen, deputy director of the Center for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation (, a conservative think tank that joined the coalition. "Rather than rush in with more of the same that failed us in the first place, we should stop, take a breath, figure out what works and what needs to be changed."

Jansen said he's more concerned about addressing the massive intelligence failure that allowed the Sept. 11 attacks than about "spying on people who we have no suspicion of doing anything wrong." He said the government should rely less on technology and more on conventional intelligence gathering, where agents learn the culture and language of their targets and get close to them.

How Americans will feel about having their e-mail read could depend on events themselves. For example, if the FBI used Carnivore - its premier Internet spying tool - to smoke out Osama bin Laden in a few days, the public might be happy, said Leslie Reis, director of the Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.

But these intrusions always have unintended consequences, Reis said. "Privacy issues are not just confined to information about individuals, but it goes to personal business transactions," she said. Likewise, expanded surveillance raises questions about protection of freedom of speech.

Today, under criminal statutes, police must obtain a court order to conduct electronic surveillance on the Internet or tap telephones. To do so, an agency must convince a judge that there is probable cause, that a crime has been committed or will be committed.

Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a panel of judges, operating in secret, decide whether a person belongs to a foreign terrorist group or is acting as an agent of a foreign power before issuing a court order for electronic surveillance. Any U.S. citizen or permanent-resident alien subjected to e-mail snooping under the FISA also must be suspected of a crime.

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