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U.S.: Advocates Warn Of Possible Erosion Of Liberties

  • Andrew Tully

In the U.S., no police officer can legally stop someone arbitrarily and demand identification papers. This, perhaps, best exemplifies the lavish freedom that Americans enjoy. But now, investigators are scouring the country for terrorists linked to the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington. President George W. Bush says the U.S. is now at war, and Americans must brace for changes in their lifestyle. Some civil liberties advocates say they may also face restrictions to their freedom.

Washington, 19 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- It is more than axiomatic that the U.S. is the freest, most open country in the world. But as President George W. Bush mounts his war on terrorism, Americans may now face restrictions on their civil liberties.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials say their ability to act effectively has been curtailed by weak laws. For example, Attorney General John Ashcroft, the nation's senior law-enforcement officer, wants Congress to expand the ability of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI, to intercept telephone conversations once they have a judge's permission. Yesterday, the White House said it supports this request.

Ashcroft reminded a Senate committee on 17 September that under current law, telephone wiretaps must be limited to specific telephones. The attorney general wants wiretap laws to apply to a suspect and any telephone he uses. There are also moves to give the FBI increased authority to monitor electronic mail and other Internet-related communications.

At a press briefing in Washington yesterday, Ashcroft -- himself a former U.S. Senator -- said he is confident that Congress will grant him broader investigative powers.

"The fight against terrorism must be an overriding priority of the Department of Justice. I have talked this week about possible legislative changes that we would need in order to be able to fight effectively against terrorism. And I'm pleased with the cooperation from members of Congress, and their ideas, their comments, their suggestions and their support for a package [of laws] which we would hope to have ready in the next few days."

Indeed, on the night of 13 September, the U.S. Senate quickly passed a series of counterterrorism measures that ordinarily would be the subject of debate.

About 100 advocacy groups have formed a loose coalition that they have named "In Defense of Freedom." It is demanding that Congress take more care in addressing antiterrorism legislation.

One of those advocacy groups is the Free Congress Foundation of the Center of Technology Policy. Its deputy director, Bradley Jansen, told RFE/RL that hasty congressional action against terrorism can actually hurt the American people more than it protects them.

"The tragedy [the terror attacks] is a failure of our current law enforcement policies and intelligence policies. We do need to correct those failures, but we should do so in ways that are actually going to correct the problem and not make it worse."

Much the same argument is offered by Stanley Cohen, a lawyer for a Muslim cleric living in the United States. Cohen says the FBI -- without good reason -- has been closely monitoring his client since the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The U.S. says Muslim militant Osama bin Laden is the leading suspect as the mastermind of the attacks.

Cohen told a Washington news conference yesterday that the FBI already has too much power to watch and even detain people under what he calls the flimsiest of pretexts.

The lawyer reminded reporters of the law enacted shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that permitted the internment of Japanese Americans in detention camps because they were thought to be a security threat. The U.S. government has since apologized for that action.

"All of a sudden, the rights of all Americans are being given to the FBI. We don't need more laws. Everyone is willing to sacrifice every right. More, more, more, more, more laws, wiretap laws, detention laws, writ [documentary] laws -- unnecessary. Just ask the Japanese Americans about World War II, another time of crisis."

Leo Ribuffo, a professor of 20th century history at George Washington University in Washington, expresses some concern, but he is not frightened that Americans are on the verge of losing precious liberties. He told RFE/RL that more laws are not necessary to fight terrorism. Some laws may need to be expanded somewhat, Ribuffo says, but he believes America's current laws are good enough to protect the country.

"I don't think the United States needs more laws. There might be some technical modifications on the wiretapping laws, but the United States during the Cold War established a substantial national security state. Despite legend, it hasn't been dismantled."

But Ribuffo adds that there is still a possibility that Congress may add laws anyway out of panic. If that happens, Americans may begin to resent restrictions on their liberty. But he adds that a short war will give legislators less time to enact increasingly more laws curbing liberties.

"Let me tell you as a historian: In all wars, or quasi-wars, civil liberties suffer, and how much they suffer depends on how long the war is."

Ribuffo says that in a major war like World War II, involving hundreds of thousands of troops and years of conflict, Americans will "put up with just about anything."

Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, agrees, and adds that the hardships most Americans face are for the most part not loss of civil liberties, but new delays in travel as security is increased at airports.

"I don't think we're talking about civil liberties as much as we're talking about inconveniences. Americans have been used to free and full and unfettered travel for a long time. That will never be back."

Sabato also stresses that neither the president nor Congress is empowered to suspend -- even briefly -- any of the liberties outlined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He says these liberties are permanent and irrevocable.

According to Sabato, some of these liberties were suspended more than a century ago during the American Civil War. He says that was illegal, and predicts that the U.S. will never suspend its core civil liberties again.