Patriot Act redux?

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Fri Oct 22 17:46:04 EDT 2004


 Patriot Act redux?
 By Declan McCullagh

 Story last modified October 18, 2004, 4:00 AM PDT

With Election Day fast approaching, it was only a matter of time before the
usual congressional shenanigans that typically punctuate the political

 This time, politicians appear to have seized on what could be called the
Patriot Act strategy, drafting antiterrorism legislation in secret and then
ramming it through the Senate and House of Representatives with minimal
debate. Then it's back to the home districts to boast how they protected
voters from the bad guys.

 The vehicles chosen for this strategy are two bills described as being
inspired by the 9/11 Commission's report, a politically potent text that's
become a best-selling book. The Senate and House have approved their own
versions of the legislation, and negotiators are now meeting privately to
decide on the final draft.

 Early indications are not promising. While portions of the massive
legislation are no doubt praiseworthy, other important sections--especially
those envisioning stuffing more information into government
databases--deserve special scrutiny from privacy hawks.

 Both the House and Senate bills coerce state governments into creating
what critics are calling a national ID card.
 Because the House version is nearly three times as long, its authors had
more room to promote private agendas.

 One section anticipates storing the "lifetime travel history of each
foreign national or United States citizen" into a database for the
convenience of government officials. It mentions passports, but there's
nothing that would preclude recording the details of trips that Americans
take inside the United States.

 President Bush would be required to create a "secure information sharing"
network to exchange data among law enforcement, military and spy agencies.
Aside from a bland assurance that "civil liberties" will be protected,
there are zero details on what databases will be vacuumed in or what
oversight will take place.

 A second network would be created by the first person to get the new job
of national intelligence director. That network must "provide immediate
access to information in databases of federal law enforcement agencies and
the intelligence community that is necessary to identify terrorists."

 It hardly needs to be said that snaring terrorists is what our government
should be doing. But it's not clear that the House bill is a step in the
right direction.

 Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and
Technology, hopes that the aides negotiating the final bill end up adopting
the Senate language instead. It also would create an information-sharing
network--while requiring that Congress receive semiannual reports on how
the network is being used.

  "There are dozens if not hundreds of government programs under way to do
just that (already)," Dempsey warns. "They are fragmented; they are
overlapping. They are occurring outside of any framework of oversight."

 Still, the Senate bill is no prize. A last-minute amendment added by Sen.
John McCain, R-Ariz., would require the Department of Homeland Security to
create an "integrated screening system" inside the United States.

 McCain envisions erecting physical checkpoints, dubbed "screening points,"
near subways, airports, bus stations, train stations, federal buildings,
telephone companies, Internet hubs and any other "critical infrastructure"
facility deemed vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Secretary Tom Ridge would
appear to be authorized to issue new federal IDs--with biometric
identifiers--that Americans could be required to show at checkpoints.

 Both the House and Senate bills coerce state governments into creating
what critics are calling a national ID card. Under the proposals, federal
agencies will accept only licenses and state ID cards that comply with
specific to-be-established standards--a requirement that would affect
anyone who wants to get a U.S. passport, obtain Social Security benefits,
or even wander into a federal courthouse.

 That's why Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato
Institute, is no fan of either bill. "They say that if we just put
appropriate rules and restrictions in place, everything will be fine,"
Harper said. "But of course those rules and restrictions will drop away
over the years or if there are new terrorist attacks. They say, 'Of course
lion-taming is safe. They're our friends.' But then one day the lion grabs
you by the neck and drags you off the stage."

 A few other courageous Washingtonians have raised similar concerns. Rep.
Ron Paul, R-Texas, warned last week that the House bill "will not make
America safer (but will definitely) make us less free." And 25 former
senior officials from the FBI, CIA and military have sent a letter to
Congress indicating that the 9/11 Commission's recommendations are flawed
because the report whitewashed what went wrong on Sept. 11, 2001.

 Unfortunately, with only 15 days left before the election, politicians
will be tempted to place expedience over sober analysis of what's permitted
by the U.S. Constitution. That's what happened in October 2001 with the mad
scramble to enact the Patriot Act, and history is about to repeat itself.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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