Congress to Weigh Privacy Right vs. Security Need Legislation May Mean Intrusiveness

Article excerpt

Byline: Steve Patterson, Times-Union staff writer

Intent on safeguarding the United States from terrorism, federal officials have envisioned new security tactics that may sharply challenge Americans' traditional expectations of privacy and civil liberty.

Policies ranging from aggressive new airport security systems to the use of national identity cards and indefinite jailing of some non-citizens, with no chance for trial, have been proposed or discussed in Washington since the terror attacks that killed more than 6,000 people Sept. 11.

Both supporters and critics acknowledge the potential for these measures to shrink America's expectations of personal freedom, disagreeing only on whether the promise of additional safety outweighs that loss. With dozens of distinct measures under consideration by Congress or federal bureaucracies, it is too early to say which ideas will take root. More ideas are expected to advance in coming weeks.

"We've heard so many proposals and speculation," said Nadine Strossen, national president of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We've only seen the tip of the iceberg."

A handful of anti-terrorism measures now under consideration illustrate the breadth of choices about personal liberty that Americans and their leaders will have to make.

Legislation that Attorney General John Ashcroft unveiled last week would let the Justice Department jail foreigners indefinitely without trial if the attorney general certifies they might be involved in terrorism or other national security threats.

The idea alarmed civil rights advocates, who said people might be locked up for years without the government producing any evidence of guilt. Congressional hearings are expected to be held this week on the legislation, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which contains dozens of separate provisions.

Justice officials scaled back the detention proposal as the week progressed. A draft bill circulated Sept. 17 said non-citizens could be detained indefinitely for deportation, and that there could be no appeal to any court until the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued a final deportation order. Late in the week, a draft said immigrants could file appeals, but only in a U.S. district court in Washington. Opponents said that didn't help, because a ruling on the appeal wouldn't be binding unless an immigrant happened to be locked up in that judicial district.

Debate about the detention plan mirrors earlier criticism of the government's use of so-called "secret evidence," classified information the Clinton administration used to hold some immigrants without disclosing their reasons to the defendant. A University of South Florida professor, Mazen Al-Najjar, was held for three years before a federal court decided last year there wasn't evidence to justify incarceration.

"We're going from secret evidence to no evidence," said Strossen, whose group organized a push last week by a political rainbow of organizations worried about the loss of rights.

Legislation to ban secret evidence was scheduled for debate in Congress before Sept. 11. But Ashcroft said last week the country needs to carefully measure public safety and constitutional rights.

"Very frankly, those who attacked the United States would attack the constitutional rights as well as the safety of individuals," Ashcroft said at a news conference. "We're going to do everything we can to harmonize the constitutional rights of individuals with every legal capacity we can muster to also protect the safety and security of individuals."

INTERNET SNOOPING

Legislation authored in the past two weeks would make it easier for federal investigators to search people's e-mail and to get information about computer users' identities and habits as part of a terrorism investigation.

Two days after the attacks, the Senate passed a rider to a disaster relief bill that would help the FBI use monitoring equipment including Carnivore, a system that can screen large amounts of e-mail for specific information. …