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Civil liberties groups on track

My worst fears have become reality with the proposed Justice Department law. 01/09/24 ReleVents hed: Civil liberties groups on track dek: My worst fears have become reality with the proposed Justice Department law. by James Mathewson

Every day, I ride the bus past the new Federal Court building. It was built at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing and its design was hastily revised to resist a similar future attack. The front of the building now has a ridiculous plaza that looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Huge, grassy humps (drumlins, they’re called) dot the landscape with strange silver-colored logs lying nearby. Apparently these humps and logs would be used for cover in the event of a full frontal assault on the building by a militant group. In the meantime, they are supposed to pass for landscaping.

Last week I warned of a backlash against our civil liberties in the wake of the terrorist attacks. At the time I wrote that column, no formal proposal had been laid out by law-enforcement agencies. But a lot has changed in a week. The Department of Justice (DOJ) outlined 20 measures it would like enacted to change our current system in order to aid with the present investigation. And a broad swath of civil liberties groups–from the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform to the left wing American Civil Liberties Union–are protesting the measure, as a news story on our site describes.

Any time such a broad coalition of citizens comes together, Congress should listen to them. The crux of their opinion is that the DOJ is using this opportunity to change constitutional provisions not only for this investigation, but for subsequent expansion of police powers. The main problem with Justice’s request is that it is an aggregate of innocuous recommendations–such as lengthening the amount of time individuals can be detained on customs issues–and much more troubling provisions–such as expanded wiretapping and surveillance powers.

My worry, echoed by many representatives of these groups, is that congressional leaders will rubber-stamp the provisions in the name of counter-terrorism and for the sake of the innocuous provisions. All these groups ask for is that congressional leaders step back from the momentary resolve to avenge these crimes and take the long view. What happens when our shores are deemed safe from terrorism again and we are left with overzealous law enforcement agents armed with warrants to search the homes and subpoenas to “wiretap” e-mail accounts of every “suspicious” individual?

Of all the statements made by these groups, the most telling came from In Defense of Freedom: “[W]e should resist temptations to enact proposals in the mistaken belief that anything that may be called anti-terrorist will necessarily provide greater security.” The reality is, if we expand police powers to greater lengths for the sake of a short-term crisis, we will not be safer from police in the long term. In the wake of this disaster we will hastily redraft laws that have stood the test of time. And in the process, we will have a system that is as ugly as the Federal Courts plaza. Except that the ugliness will not just be an eyesore; the ugliness will infect the core of our way of life.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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