[ OUR OPINION ]
Congress should put
limits on surveillance
DEMANDS for increased surveillance of activities related to terrorism have threatened to erode Americans' right to privacy. Recent government decisions could result in serious breaches of privacy for law-abiding people unless Congress takes remedial action by repealing some legislation or refusing to fund invasive operations that it has approved.
The Homeland Security Act, awaiting the president's signature, includes increased government surveillance of U.S. citizens.
Hawaii's entire congressional delegation voted against creation of a Homeland Security Department. While a massive governmental reorganization is needed to combat terrorism, privacy considerations were understandable reasons for opposing the legislation in its final version.
The bill, which President Bush will sign into law, prohibits the Justice Department's scary citizen-informant program and national identification cards. However, the bill has plenty of other provisions that will allow government to "mine" into people's private lives. It expands the ability of police to conduct Internet or telephone eavesdropping without first obtaining court permission and allows Internet providers to disclose more information to authorities about subscribers.
It also will create an office in the new department patterned after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Defense Department agency that has devised a project called Total Information Awareness. The project is run by John Poindexter, a retired Navy rear admiral who was convicted in 1990 for his role in the Iran-contra scandal when he was national security adviser in the Reagan administration. He won a reversal of his conviction on appeal because of the immunity granted for his testimony before Congress.
According to Poindexter, the system will provide intelligence analysts and law-enforcement officials with access to information about people's Internet mail, credit card records, banking transactions and travel documents, without a search warrant. Poindexter has said the system is needed to "break down the stovepipes" that separate commercial and government records and make them accessible to intelligence-agency analysts.
The new power may be impossible to challenge in court. The highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court created by Congress considers wiretap requests in terror and espionage cases. An equally secretive appeals court last week overturned the first appeal it received, determining that intelligence investigators and criminal prosecutors can more easily share information about terrorism and espionage.
Since the targets of such espionage are unaware of being monitored, only the government may appeal decisions by either of these two courts. Privacy interests are not given a fair hearing under such a procedure. With enactment of the Homeland Security Act, the Justice Department might decide it has no reason to seek the court's permission to obtain search warrants, since the warrants themselves are not needed. People outside of government may be kept in the dark.
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