Protecting civil liberties

We've all heard the alarming news for civil liberties contained in the massive USA PATRIOT Act rushed into law in November. (It's an acronym, believe it or not: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.)

Among those tools are the ability to conduct physical searches without property owners being present or alerted ("sneak-and-peak"), increased power for government officials to designate organizations as "terrorists" and to deport non-citizens who belong to them, and enhanced law-enforcement abilities to conduct phone and Internet taps with lower levels of judicial oversight.

But it wasn't all bad news. In the heady, frightened rush immediately after September 11, even worse ideas were floating around that thankfully didn't make it into law -- or at least haven't yet.

Among them, says the Free Congress Foundation's J. Bradley Jansen, who helped organize a left-right coalition to defend civil liberties after 9/11, were the following: expansions of civil forfeiture that would have allowed the government to take property and money it could not directly link to any alleged crime; plans to share information gleaned from searches of U.S. citizens' e-mail by foreign intelligence services, even when the searches would have been illegal under U.S. law; and presidential authority to unilaterally extend foreign aid and credit anywhere as long as it was for "anti-terrorist activity."

Jansen notes that Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) "even wanted to bring back the Clipper Chip," an anti-encryption standard that would have let the feds read any e-mail and snoop on other scrambled communications. That idea too fell by the wayside.

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