Two wars

July 07, 2002

THIS INDEPENDENCE Day weekend, Americans find themselves engaged in two wars -- one against terrorism and one against the Bush administration's penchant for abridging their civil liberties.

The safest course for Americans would be to prevail in both conflicts. But so far, the first struggle has led to significant losses in the latter.

Long before terrorists toppled the World Trade Center last September, this administration had struck a pattern of keeping an unusual degree of information -- even on routine matters -- from Congress and the public. Since then, the challenges of defending the nation at home and abroad from a new kind of enemy have repeatedly given President Bush more opportunities to sidestep traditional checks on government power.

In response to the threat of terrorism, the administration has sent FBI agents to libraries to check on what certain people are reading, secretly detained hundreds of immigration violators and blocked public access to their deportation hearings, and designated an American citizen as an "enemy combatant" so it can hold him indefinitely without charges, counsel or a trial in a military jail.

The latest move along these lines is embedded in Mr. Bush's proposal to create an enormous new Cabinet-level department with sweeping authority to oversee homeland security, a realignment on par with the creation of the Defense Department after World War II. This amalgam of about 100 government functions and 170,000 employees may include more armed federal agents with arrest powers than any other branch of government.

Under the administration proposal, the Homeland Security Department would be granted dangerously broad exemptions to federal Freedom of Information laws, to federal "whistleblower" protection rules and from investigations and audits by an independent inspector general. Never mind that existing exemptions within these laws would provide sufficient protections for sensitive or proprietary information.

The new department appears to have bipartisan support in Congress despite real questions whether this reorganization would actually foster greater domestic security. But in its rush to give birth to this agency, Congress should avoid awarding it the ability to operate with virtually no public accountability -- a prescription for dysfunction and abuse if there ever was one.

It was more than merely ironic that, just as this bold move to take away citizens' rights to monitor a critical federal agency was announced last month, FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley was testifying before a Senate subcommittee on her agency's serious intelligence failures leading up to Sept. 11. Her testimony graphically detailed many of the problems that must be solved if the government is to do an adequate job of ensuring homeland security. Americans would be in greater danger these days if, as an FBI employee, Agent Rowley had been so afraid of the consequences of speaking up that she had kept silent.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, has been leading the fight to make sure that this new department is not, as he put it, "above the law." And Tom Ridge, the homeland security director, has responded that the department is a "work in progress" and promised some flexibility on these issues -- giving some hope that the administration may give up its plan to cloak it in secrecy.

If Americans don't sit by and let Mr. Bush roll back their rights this time, they'll end up safer for it.

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