Americans watched incredulously on September 11 as three planes hit the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. While most wondered how this could have been prevented and many pointed fingers at our lack of multicultural perspective, the White House rushed to come up with an Anti-Terrorist Act that will possibly curb the activities of terrorists–but at the price of civil liberties of all Americans.
The White House proposal includes an amalgamation of 52 different initiatives that range from increased law enforcement authority to greater federal oversight of airports and the airline industry. To the Bush administration’s credit, some of the proposals are good ideas, even common sense. For example, one of the proposals includes making it a crime to train or harbor a terrorist. Further, the act removes the statute of limitations for terror crimes. However, most of the other proposals include expanding the government’s ability to snoop in the private lives of individuals.
One of the recommendations calls for the relaxation of the standards for obtaining a warrant for a wiretap. Currently, “probable cause” is required to obtain permission from a judge for a wiretap. This standard requires that investigators prove to a judge that there is good reason for them to get a wiretap; it is rather difficult to reach, as evidenced by the fact that few wiretap warrants are granted (there were just 1190 in the entire United States last year, most of which were for drug-related activities). But now the White House wants to remove the “probable cause” restriction from the government’s ability to get permission to wiretap. Further, the bill would remove this restriction from not just terrorism-related wiretaps, but the current 100 or so crimes for which a suspect could be tapped, including fraud in student loan applications.
Even worse, the bill includes provisions that would increase the scope of wiretaps. Currently the requesting agency must specify a particular phone line to tap, and the identity of the party with whom the suspect speaks is kept secret by the device. If adopted, the bill would allow for wiretapping authority to become portable, meaning that the government could read e-mail, listen to cellular phone conversations, and listen to answering machine messages at their discretion, without having to specify to the judge exactly which phone and which line would be tapped. This would allow the FBI to know the identity of the other party in the case of e-mails because this information can be easily discerned in the email text. Combined with the removal of the “probable cause” provision, these would allow the government to monitor all communications of anyone suspected of having some kind of ties to terrorist groups, whether he knows that he is friends with someone planning a terror attack or not.
More dangerous, however, is that the Bush administration is now using this incident to reinstate the controversial CARNIVORE software provision, which would allow the FBI to install this piece of software on an Internet Service Provider’s server to monitor all email traffic for incriminating information. While the FBI gives us their assurances that they will not monitor innocent people, but only those suspected of a crime, this system will open the door to possible abuses. FBI agents would be able to snoop through the private communications of innocent civilians. Historically, the FBI and other government agencies with investigatory powers have disregarded individuals’ rights in times of crisis—J. Edgar Hoover monitored the personal lives of anyone who could possibly be an opponent of the current regime and the IRS has been used for political intimidation by Presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon to Clinton. When the FBI proposed using this software last year, there was a public outcry from groups ranging from the ultra-liberal ACLU to the right-wing Eagle Forum. Yet the proposal has resurfaced.
In the area of enforcement, the White House has also proposed a provision that would allow the federal government to seize the property and assets of suspected criminals even if that person was never convicted of any crime. Furthermore, the government would be able to conduct searches of suspects’ homes without telling the occupant and without having to prove before a court that the secrecy was necessary.
Finally, the government would be able to indefinitely detain legal aliens on suspicion of terrorist activity based on “reasonable belief” by the attorney general, rather than the stronger standard of “probable cause”—a blatant violation of the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes Americans’ writ of habeas corpus. These detained aliens would have to sue in the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia to have their freedom reinstated. In other words, the legal process would be removed from their vicinity and placed in Washington.
While most would do anything to strengthen the government’s power to prevent such tragic events as those of September 11th, those who propose such bills as the White House one make the mistake of sacrificing the civil liberties of all Americans for airline safety and national security—especially when the benefits conferred would be small.
Guns were banned on airplanes and terrorists used knives and box-cutters. Once we start banning any sharp objects, hair-spray, and perfume—a ban that has already gone into effect—terrorists will just start weight training and will bring ropes on board to strangle the pilot and stewardesses. And if such bans were a good idea, it is likely that airlines would make them anyway. Few airlines would like to lose a $25 million-airplane or their customer base as a result of bad press after a tragedy. The September 11 terrorists reportedly communicated in secret codes so that their emails could not be tracked. In essence, the terrorists were already one-step ahead of the regulations just now being proposed. Every time the government attempts to violate people’s privacy in the name of protection, those who are part of sophisticated terrorist networks will find clever ways to evade being uncovered by using encryption, hiding their messages in photographs, and communicating using secret code that only they know.
Expanded wiretap authority and CARNIVORE would allow the government to snoop on innocent civilians and begin investigations on those who communicate over email that they dislike the government, even if they were joking. This is an especially grave problem since the federal government now has expanded detainment and property forfeiture authority. People who strongly disagree with government policies, though they have no terrorist motives, may be targeted for prosecution.
The Constitutionality of these provisions is shaky. Some violate the Constitution outright. Others have been proposed and defeated in the past. For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts provided for some of the expanded detainment authority granted by this bill. James Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions in response to these bills, arguing that they are unconstitutional. However, it seems that once we have already decided that our Constitution can be trampled upon whenever the ends are noble enough, these are the kinds of proposals that come about.
It would be a mistake to turn our free society into a closed one. The terrorists America because of their hatred for the freedoms we enjoy and our support for other such societies abroad. While we may win the military campaign against Afghanistan, the passing of this bill would be an actual victory for terrorists, one that will have a more lasting impact than anything we could ever do to rid the world of men like bin Laden.
Yevgeny Vilensky is a junior in Trumbull College