» Ann Arbor News
» Town Talk
» Local Photos
» Opinion
» Statewide News
» NewsFlash
» Paid Death Notices
» Weather

» News Talk
» Town Talk
» More Forums
» Log On to ChatXtra!

» Get free local news e-mail updates!
» More Newsletters


» Advertise With Us

» More From The Ann Arbor News

Top Stories

Civil defense vs. civil liberties Government says expanded powers needed in fight against terrorism; critics say they have gone too far

Sunday, July 6, 2003

News Staff Reporter

Matthew Lawrence says it's scary to hear stories about the U.S. government developing technology that will be able to track, record and analyze the movement of every car in a foreign country.

But the Ann Arbor minister says he was also traumatized and will never forget watching the Twin Towers' fiery collapse on Sept. 11, 2001.

Like many Americans, Lawrence is torn over a war on terrorism that some say pits civil defense against civil liberties. He wants terrorism stamped out. But he is concerned it may come at the expense of privacy and constitutional rights.

"It is really tricky," Lawrence said. "It is true that there are people out there trying to kill us. You don't want to diminish the government's abilities to get the bad guys. But it's pretty scary when they have that much information technology out there.

"My son is reading '1984' right now," Lawrence said, referring to George Orwell's classic 1949 book about the idea of a "Big Brother" government controlling its citizens. "Those issues are on our minds a lot."

At the heart of the issue is how far should the government, in the name of fighting terrorism, be allowed to go in monitoring e-mails, intercepting phone calls, keeping information on people and conducting secret arrests.

Civil libertarians have focused much of their criticism on the USA Patriot Act, which was drawn up to expand governmental powers, including domestic spying, after the 911 attacks. Concerns over that act have brought out hundreds of citizens to local meetings in the Ann Arbor area in recent weeks.

Ann Arbor City Council Member Kim Groome, D-1st Ward, has prepared a resolution that she says protests the erosion of civil liberties through the Patriot Act and other federal legislation. Groome said the resolution will be discussed at Monday's council meeting and she hopes it will be voted upon.

Ann Arbor isn't alone. Similar resolutions have been adopted by more than 130 communities nationwide and the states of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"In my conversations with people from across the political spectrum, I hear one refrain over and over: If we give up our freedoms in the name of national security, we will have lost the war on terrorism," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a statement released Thursday.

A civil debate

Critics of the federal government say an erosion of civil rights began with the roundup of 762 foreigners in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. And it has continued, they say, with the passing of the USA Patriot Act and the drafting of Patriot Act II.

They say Americans only need to recall the abuses of power by former President Richard Nixon and former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to realize the dangers of unchecked government.

The federal government says the war on terrorism requires a new way of thinking because it involves a ruthless, nontraditional enemy without fixed bases of operations. Officials say laws must be updated and expanded to enable them to use new surveillance technology to track and attack elusive terrorist organizations, such as Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida.

One Justice Department lawyer said many critics of the Patriot Act may have good intentions but are acting on faulty information about what new powers the law gives the government. She says many of the same investigative tools were available to the government before the Patriot Act became law in October 2001.

"My only beef is that many critics are basing their attacks on false or misleading information," said Barbara McQuade, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit. "Job 1 is to educate yourself. Then if you disagree, you are free to say so strongly."

Yet the philosophical tug-of-war between civil liberties advocates and the government's post-9-11 policies has left many people unsure what is in the best interests of the country.

"You hear all of these horror stories," said Ann Arbor's Wassim Mourtada, who was born in Lebanon and is not an American citizen but has lived here for 11 years. "At a certain point, you don't know who to believe."

High-tech spying

The Pentagon is developing a surveillance system that would allow every vehicle in a foreign city to be tracked, recorded and analyzed to protect soldiers overseas.

Some worry it could be adapted and used domestically.

The CIA has set up In-Q-Tel, a venture capital company that invests in technology to help improve the CIA's search for information. The FBI has a computer program that allows it to intercept e-mails.

Mourtada owns a venture capital company in Ann Arbor and said technology usually outpaces the law.

He said he understands the reason for the Patriot Act.

"I tend to understand the context," Mourtada said. "Acts of terrorism were committed. You can prevent it. You must prevent it. What fundamentally worries me is its misapplication."

The rules the government must follow regarding new surveillance technology are just now being established, says one expert.

"This wouldn't have come up in the 1960s," said Peter Honeyman, scientific director of the University of Michigan's Center for Information Technology Integration. "It'll be an issue in the 2030s. Historically, we are at the moment when we have to make the decision."

But Honeyman questions whether technology is really the issue.

"Policy is the real story here. I think the Bush administration has other things in mind. They are not just invading privacy for the hell of it."

Honeyman says one possible misuse could be the government's tracking of individuals and keeping dossiers on them.

"How much do we want the government to know about us?" Honeyman said. "How much do we want to let them know about us to serve their ends?"

Historical lessons

Concerns about the government abusing its power are not without historical basis.

n On his own secretly recorded tapes, President Nixon discussed in 1972 with an aide having the CIA ask the FBI to stop investigating the Watergate break-in by claiming it involved national security. Former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord Jr. were convicted in 1973 of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.

  • Hoover, the controversial director of the FBI for nearly 50 years, kept files on many prominent Americans, including members of Congress. Some alleged Hoover used them for blackmail. Hoover and the FBI investigated any high-profile person who he thought held dangerous political views, including leaders of the Civil Rights movement.

    "Unfortunately, we have a really short memory and we forget the lessons we learned," Lawrence said. "It's not good enough for the government to say, 'Just trust us.' When you give government the power that is easily abused, they may not abuse it today but you never know about tomorrow."

    Some civil rights advocates say the government is abusing its powers now.

    A report by the Justice Department's Inspector General in early June criticized the government's handling of the 762 foreigners detained on visa violations after Sept. 11.

    The report said the detainees were mistreated and abused and had problems meeting with their lawyers. It also said of the 762 detained, only Zacarias Moussaoui was facing a terrorism charge. And he was taken into custody before the Sept. 11 attacks.

    Among those detained was Ann Arbor Muslim leader Rabih Haddad.

    Haddad has been in federal custody for 18 months for a visa violation. He was co-founder of Global Relief Foundation, an Islamic charity that has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government. Yet, Haddad hasn't been charged with any terrorist-related crimes and is fighting deportation.

    "The inspector general's own report showed there is a lot that is going on that is questionable," said Kary Moss, the executive director of the ACLU of Michigan.

    Moss said the ACLU has fought to find out the names of the detainees and whether they have been charged but has had no response from the government. And immigration hearings were closed by Attorney General John Ashcroft at first until overruled by the courts.

    "It's a level of secrecy the country has never experienced before in its judicial system," Moss said. "There is this grab for power and an attack on privacy. A lot of what is going on, we don't know."

    McQuade said the secrecy is necessary in some cases to protect the national security.

    But Moss said the government's secrecy expands beyond the detainees.

    What concerns Moss is the Patriot Act II. According to reports, the "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003" was leaked to the Center for Public Integrity in February. The 87-page bill was a classified document.

    Moss said the Department of Justice had denied there was another Patriot Act type legislation being considered before it was leaked.

    "They were caught doing something in secret again," Moss said.

    And critics are also concerned that Attorney General John Ashcroft also has rewritten Freedom of Information Act guidelines, making it easier for the government to deny requests.

    Is 'Big Brother' watching?

    Critics paint a picture of an Orwellian government, surfing Web pages looking for innocent civilians to spy upon.

    McQuade said those types of characterizations of the government's intentions and legal capabilities are wrong.

    For example, the Electronic Frontier Foundation - a self-described defender of freedom in the digital world - did an analysis of the Patriot Act. It says: "Be careful what you put in that Google search. The government may spy on Web surfing of innocent Americans, including terms entered into search engines, by merely telling a judge anywhere in the U.S. that the spying could lead to information that is 'relevant' to an ongoing criminal investigation."

    McQuade said that is misleading.

    All the Patriot Act allows, she said, is the ability to get e-mail addresses, without content or subject line, that someone sends or receives messages from. McQuade said that just updates existing law to the changes in technology. The government, with a court order, could always get the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls of a suspect in a criminal investigation. Now it is expanded to e-mails.

    McQuade said to get Google search terms or Web sites visited would require wiretaps. She said to acquire a wiretap "agents must obtain several levels of approval from the FBI and the attorney general, then present a detailed affidavit to a judge to establish probable cause."

    The national ACLU Web site claims the Patriot Act allows the FBI to spy on a person "because they don't like the books she reads or because they don't like the Web sites she visits. They could spy on her because she wrote a letter to the editor that criticized government policy."

    McQuade said the Patriot Act expressly prohibits that type of investigation. She said the Patriot Act may not be used against U.S. persons (citizens or permanent resident aliens) solely on the basis of activity protected by the First Amendment. She said it can only be used against identified targets who are already the subject of an investigation."

    "Therefore," McQuade wrote in an e-mail response to a reporter, "the FBI cannot just conduct a fishing expedition to see what people are reading, writing in newspapers or viewing on the Internet."

    A 'good' act

    Ashcroft acknowledged in testimony June 5 before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary that some politicians who supported the Patriot Act are now questioning it.

    "Let me state this as clearly as possible," Ashcroft said. "Our ability to prevent another catastrophic attack on American soil would be more difficult, if not impossible, without the Patriot Act. It has been the key weapon used across America in successful counter-terrorist operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists."

    Ashcroft said the Patriot Act was vital in the indictment of Sami Al-Arian and seven co-conspirators recently. He said several were leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which Ashcroft said is responsible for the murder of more than 100 innocent people, including 20-year-old American student, Alisa Flatow.

    Ashcroft opened his remarks to Senate committee by quoting Stephen Flatow, the father of the slain student: "When you know the resources of your government are committed to right the wrong committed against your daughter, that instills you with a sense of awe. As a father, you can't ask for anything more."

    Tom Gantert can be reached at or (734) 994-6701.

    © 2003 Ann Arbor News. Used with permission

    » Send This Page | » Print This Page
    » Initiative is difficult
    » Court hears testimony about slain girlfriend
    » EMU seeking flexibility with retirement deal

    More Stories | 14-Day Archive | Complete MLive News Coverage
    Today's News, Links & Archives

  • The Best Local Classifieds: Jobs | Autos | Real Estate | Place An Ad

    Special Home Delivery Offers!
    Ann Arbor News | Bay City Times | Flint Journal
    Grand Rapids Press | Jackson Citizen Patriot | Kalamazoo Gazette
    Muskegon Chronicle | Saginaw News

    About Us | Help/Feedback | Advertise With Us

    Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement. Please read our Privacy Policy.
    ©2003 All Rights Reserved.

    Place an AdAll ClassifiedsReal EstateShop for autosJobs