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A View from the Experts: Groups worry liberties are compromised in name of anti terrorism

Sunday, October 27, 2002

By Lynda Guydon Taylor, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Cato Institute clearly are concerned about the erosion of civil liberties in the war on terrorism.

The Patriot Act has huge implications for civil liberties, said Witold Walczak, Pittsburgh ACLU executive director.

"It significantly expands the government's ability to eavesdrop on people without providing adequate judicial oversight. It expands government ability to come into your house, look around and download stuff [from your computer] without your knowing. They'd simply say they need to do it for international terrorism-related reasons," Walczak said, referring to what's been nicknamed "sneak and peak" tactics.

As evidence of its concern, the ACLU is involved in two secret deportation hearings, cases in which the organization is trying to identify people who've been detained, and four lawsuits against airlines who excluded Middle Easterners because of customer concerns, he said.

Similarly, Robert Levy, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian public policy research organization, criticized the Patriot Act as improperly researched, hastily passed legislation.

Levy identified three problems. First, any law with the potential to dramatically alter the usual motives of civil liberties should be careful in guarding against abuse. The law focuses too much power in the executive branch. Secondly, Levy said, rather than limiting the law to terrorism, lawmakers extended provisions to ordinary criminal matters. Furthermore, the four-year limit on the act applies to only a portion of it, not the whole statute.

As a matter of interest, on a scale of 1 to 10, the current concern over civil liberties is undoubtedly a 10, Walczak said. The ACLU is very concerned about 80 people whose charges are unknown and have been detained for a year. How does it compromise national security to know why they're being detained, Walczak asked.

"One of the things we have learned over the last 85 years is, in times of perceived war or perceived threat to our security, the nation has tended to overreact," Walczak said, referring to Japanese-American internment during World War II, the Joseph McCarthy hearings into un-American activities and abuses by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

"The message here is that we have to be very careful in monitoring the government's actions. Is what they're doing really making us safer? Does it unnecessarily infringe on civil liberties? When government operates in secrecy, it's inviting abuse," Walczak said.

That's a point with which Levy agrees. Not only is the Patriot Act faulty, so is the Terrorism Information Prevention System, better known as TIPS. Diluted from its original intent to use mail carriers and utility service people with unique access to private property, the plan now calls for using truckers and dock workers to inform on fellow citizens.

Levy's concern is that "it turns us into a nation of meddlers and busybodies." Truckers and dock workers don't have the expertise to ascertain suspicious activity.

If the administration wants information from citizens, Levy said, it would be better off establishing a hotline.

To access the ACLU Web site, go to http://www.aclu.org. To visit Cato's Web site, go to http://www.cato.org.

Lynda Guydon Taylor can be reached at ltaylor@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8813.

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