Losing the War for Civil Liberties; Civil Libertarians Contend Politicians Have Pulled a Bait and Switch by Using the War on Terrorism to Implement Intrusive-And Unconstitutional-Security Measures. (Nation: USA Patriot Act)

Article excerpt

It used to be that Americans packed for air travel with a mental checklist of personal items needed for their holiday or business engagement: which clothes to bring, shoes, cameras, etc. Today, however, in the backwash of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. mainland, a new and more detailed (often ridiculous) list of concerns must be considered.

No eyebrow tweezers, for instance, no fingernail files or clippers, no toothpicks, no rat-tail combs, no letter openers or anything that even resembles a knife, and just two (count 'em, two) throw-away lighters. Every one of these items, apparently, is considered a security threat and, if noticed by the new federal airport-security force, will land a passenger at the end of the conveyer belt for a public shakedown and perhaps worse.

While time-consuming, embarrassing, annoying and sometimes frightening, the new airline-security measures pale in comparison to a number of other (more invasive) provisions federal lawmakers authorized in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Civil libertarians charge that the new security measures sacrifice political freedom in the name of national security while contributing little or nothing to the war on terror.

Either way, the terrorists win. A little more than one month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, public enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden, predicted that "freedom and human rights in America are doomed. The U.S. government will lead the American people--and the West in general--into an unbearable hell and a choking life" During the year following the bin Laden attacks, sweeping new government powers indeed have been authorized that civil libertarians say threaten the freedoms Americans are told this nation's enemies hate.

Many of these powers were authorized in a flush of panic by the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, or USA PATRIOT Act [see "Police State," Dec. 3, 2001]. Passed before members of Congress even could read it, this law provides sweeping powers to state and federal law-enforcement officials to combat terrorism. The problem, critics say, is that under these new powers every American citizen is a possible suspect of terrorism. On the right, INSIGHT is on record as opposing this law from the moment of its passage. On the left, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has worked tirelessly to resist assaults on civil liberties arising from the Sept. 11 attacks and has focused on the act.

Indeed, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero tells INSIGHT "We've been enormously concerned that the war on terrorism has fundamentally eroded civil liberties in the country. You have a system of checks and balances that has been upset by Attorney General John Ashcroft; you have actions taken by the Justice Department that have been veiled in a cloak of secrecy; and you have wholesale abridgement of the Bill of Rights even in cases involving American citizens. All of our efforts have been focused on the effort to keep in place a system of checks and balances."

The ACLU has been relentless in publicizing what its leaders say they regard as the most egregious of the new security measures under the USA PATRIOT Act, including but not limited to the following:

* The law allows for indefinite detention of noncitizens who are not terrorists on minor visa violations.

* It minimizes judicial supervision of telephone and Internet surveillance by law-enforcement authorities in antiterrorism investigations and in routine criminal investigations unrelated to terrorism.

* The act expands the ability of the government to conduct secret searches--even in criminal investigations unrelated to terrorism.

* It gives the attorney general and the secretary of state the power to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations. …