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Saturday, September 15, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lingering U.S. rights vs. safety debate is revived

Seattle Times staff reporter

WASHINGTON — In the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Americans must grapple anew with how to maintain security in a society that jealously guards its civil liberties.

Before the smoke had cleared from the strikes on Tuesday, new travel restrictions were mandated at airports, police blocked major streets in Washington and New York, and the Senate quickly approved more federal monitoring of Internet activity.

None of the measures drew widespread protest in the climate of unity that followed the attacks.

But civil-rights advocates and security analysts caution against crafting domestic policies that may seem reasonable in the heat of the moment but prove ineffective, even harmful, in the long term.

Jim Steinberg, deputy director of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, noted that throughout American history there has been much debate at "crisis moments" about the price of public safety.

"People will take the view that the terrorists will have won," he said, "if we see a dramatic change in the balance the country has historically drawn between civil liberties and law enforcement."

Electronic surveillance

One area where he anticipated changes, however, is in limits on electronic surveillance.

"There's clearly a need to update the way we think about the role and function of law enforcement in relation to new technology," Steinberg said. "We have a lot of evidence that terrorists use the Internet very successfully."

That was a concern Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sought to address with an amendment that passed the Senate by voice vote Thursday. It allows greater flexibility in obtaining court orders to track individual Internet users online.

"We are talking about giving the tools to law enforcement that it needs to stop further terrorist acts in our society," Hatch said on the Senate floor.

Privacy advocates protested that the measure grants law enforcement too much latitude. It sets a lower threshold for tracking some information over the Internet than is required for a phone wiretap.

And in a heated exchange on the Senate floor, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., protested that such a sensitive measure should have been tested in committee, not rushed to passage in a time of crisis.

"Maybe the Senate wants to just go ahead and adopt new abilities to wiretap our citizens. Maybe they want to adopt new abilities to go into people's computers. Maybe that will make us feel safer. Maybe," Leahy said.

"But what have we done to stop terrorism and to help the people in New York and the survivors at the Pentagon?"

Leahy's frustration underscores the concerns of privacy advocates, who fear that in the fervor to root out the enemy, privacy will be diminished — and a fearful public will allow it.

"Clearly there's going to be important factions that are going to say we need to broaden all surveillance," said Evan Hendricks, publisher of the Privacy Times newsletter.

Fears of 'Carnivore'

He fears the war on terrorism could be used to defend everything from increased video monitoring of public areas to the FBI's "Carnivore" e-mail wiretap tools. Privacy advocates have long criticized "Carnivore," which the FBI can install on Internet providers' networks to intercept all messages to or from an inquiry's target.

Hendricks questioned the wisdom of broad surveillance of the public and a reliance on technological fixes over a tighter focus on individuals known to associate with terrorists.

"The people that are the greatest threats are the ones that will study whatever surveillance system we put in place and learn how to evade it," he said.

For decades, terrorism was mostly a foreign problem. But during the past 10 years — with the original World Trade Center bombing in 1992 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 — it has been a growing domestic concern.

Policy prescriptions have ebbed and flowed with events. After the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton shut down a section of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Rush-hour traffic in the capital grew measurably worse, and local leaders still are pushing to reverse the decision.

Where to draw the line?

Advocates say some laws designed to combat terrorism have weakened civil-rights protections. A 1996 federal anti-terrorism bill, for example, allowed the use of secret evidence — materials prosecutors need not share with defendants — in deportation hearings.

The scale and sophistication of Tuesday's attacks are expected to evoke an unprecedented response abroad and at home. But where do you draw the line between public safety and freedom in an open society?

A ban on pocket knives and curb-side check-in, and an increase in random bag inspections, mean longer delays at airports. This week, Americans seemed to accept the changes.

But the terrorist often waits for targets to drop their guard: Will Americans have the patience for long security checks at the airport if there's a lull of six or seven months between attacks?

Would it be worth going through the same security hassle at the train station? How about the baseball stadium?

Privacy advocates aren't the only ones concerned about the balance between competing interests.

Gregg Leslie of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said his group has noticed increased calls for greater government secrecy and more surveillance.

"If you feel it's justified because you're looking for an unknown enemy, it can quickly be expanded into tracking journalists to see who they're talking to," he said.

A specific concern for Leslie is legislation on Capitol Hill that would stiffen penalties for anyone who leaked classified information to a reporter. The bill appeared stalled before the attacks, but Leslie said it could now be revived.

James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute, was bracing himself for fallout as authorities identified the recent hijackers as Muslims. Zogby has worked to undo the 1996 act that allowed secret evidence in deportation hearings.

"My concern is that we may have the same again," he said, adding that a radio-show host this week asked him why U.S. agents shouldn't resume ethnic profiling at airports after the attacks.

"Do we toss out the Constitution and violate the rights of individual citizens in a practice that may or may not solve the problem? Or do we take effective security measures that don't violate civil rights and provide obvious advances in security?"

Zogby was gratified that the Justice Department Civil Rights Division and the FBI this week assigned officials in several regions of the country to help head off any acts of revenge aimed at the Arab-American community.

James M. Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in terrorism, said that in some ways the battle is not about U.S. policy abroad but the character of America.

"This is not about what the U.S. has done in Iraq," Lindsay said. "This is about who Americans are as a people."

Kevin Galvin can be reached at 206-464-8550 or kgalvin@seattletimes.com.

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