White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel was in the middle of defending President Clinton's record on civil liberties recently when CNN flashed news across his office television that, at first glance, helped make his case.
The FBI was on the hunt for a Texas rental truck filled with the ingredients for a devastating bomb, another radar blip in the stream of terrorism, crime and pornography that sometimes seems to be invading America.
But like many other cases - the naming of Richard Jewell as a suspect in last year's bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta or the suspicion of terrorism in the demise of TWA Flight 800, to name two - this one turned out to be a false alarm.
The Clinton administration has embarked on what critics say is the single greatest assault on Americans' liberties in a generation, all in the name of fighting crime and protecting citizens from the seamy underside of the communications revolution.
The list grows monthly. Record numbers of wiretaps. Attempts to censor indecency on the Internet. The ability to decode private computer communications. Built-in surveillance of digital telephone networks. Chemical "taggants" in the ingredients for explosives. Expanded drug testing. A TV rating system and the "V-chip." Restrictions on tobacco advertising. Safety locks on handguns. And, most recently, computerized profiling of airline passengers to spot terrorists.
"Not since Richard Nixon wiretapped his political opponents has there been an administration with less regard for the privacy rights of American citizens," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which opposes government attempts to regulate the Internet.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, spoke in almost identical terms.
"There's a very dangerous, almost cavalier attitude toward civil liberties and personal freedom and privacy rights by this administration," he said. "I think it's systemic," he said, "unlike Watergate, which was personal."
As Mr. Barr noted, there has been little public outcry over the president's policies. Far from it. In a Los Angeles Times poll taken after the TWA disaster and the Atlanta bombing, 58 percent of respondents said they would be willing to give up some liberties to help curb terrorism.
But Mr. Clinton's critics say that he and his aides, in their eagerness to take the politically popular "tough on crime" label away from the Republicans, have ridden roughshod over civil liberties.
While the president acted to protect religious freedom and minority rights, "I don't think their civil liberties calculus gets into play in the law enforcement realm," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office.
"Too many people in the administration just put blinders on. . . . This allows them to be ambushed by their own [law enforcement] people," she said, mentioning such foul-ups as the siege at Waco and problems in the FBI's crime lab.
The White House's deference to FBI Director Louis Freeh "I find very disturbing," said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, which is critical of the administration on many fronts.
While there is an understandable desire to speed legislation "in the heat of the moment" after an attack like the one at Oklahoma City, "we in the Congress have a responsibility to guard against a knee-jerk reaction," said Mr. Barr, who last year succeeded in knocking out provisions of an anti-terrorism bill he felt gave government too much power.
Officials' response takes several forms, but their basic argument is that they are struggling to balance public safety and civil liberties while dealing with problems that their predecessors never had to, from criminal enterprises using sophisticated communications to pornography that is easily accessible on a family computer. …