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Homeland Security and Privacy Print E-mail

Written by Kerby Anderson

A Supersnoop's Dream

Every day we seem to wake up to news about another terrorist threat, so it's not surprising that Americans are placing more of their faith in the government to protect them. But there are also important questions being raised about our loss of privacy and constitutional protections. So in this article we are going to take a look at some of these issues as we focus on the subject of homeland security.

The Department of Homeland Security was created by combining twenty-two existing agencies and 170,000 federal employees with an annual budget of approximately $35 billion. While the implications of this megamerger of governmental agencies will be debated for some time, some columnists have already begun to question the impact it will have on our private lives.

The Washington Times called it "A Supersnoop's Dream." Columnist William Safire of the New York Times wrote a column entitled "You Are a Suspect" in which he warned of a dangerous intrusion into our lives. He predicted in November 2002 that if the Homeland Security Act were not amended before passage, the following would happen to you:

• Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend—all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as a virtual centralized grand database.

• To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you—passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance—and you have the supersnoop's dream: a Total Information Awareness about every U.S. citizen.

It is important to point out that these concerns about a potential invasion of privacy did not start with the passage of the Homeland Security Act. Over a year ago, critics pointed to the hastily passed U.S.A. Patriot Act which widened the scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and weakened 15 privacy laws.

On the other hand, there are many who argue that these new powers are necessary to catch terrorists. Cal Thomas, for example, writes that "Most Americans would probably favor a more aggressive and empowered federal government if it lessens the likelihood of further terrorism. The niceties of civil liberties appear to have been lost on the 9/11 hijackers and countries from which they came. Wartime rules must be different from those in peacetime."{1}

The Patriot Act

Let's look more closely at the U.S.A. Patriot Act. When Senator Russ Feingold voted against the Act, he made these comments from the Senate floor on October 11, 2001:

"There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country where police were allowed to search your home at any time for any reason; if we lived in a country where the government is entitled to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your e-mail communications; if we lived in a country where people could be held indefinitely based on what they write or think, or based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, the government would probably discover more terrorists or would-be terrorists, just as it would find more lawbreakers generally. But that wouldn't be a country in which we would want to live."

Most would agree that the Patriot Act weakens grand jury secrecy. Already there is criticism that grand juries have become mere tools of the prosecution and have lost their independence. By destroying its secrecy, any federal official or bureaucrat can "share" grand jury testimony or wiretap information.

The Patriot Act also weakens Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. Under the Act, law-enforcement agencies can in "rare instances" search a person's home without informing that homeowner for up to ninety days. This so-called "sneak and peek" provision can be used to sneak into your home, and even implant a hidden "key logger" device on a suspect's computer (allowing federal officials to capture passwords and monitor every keystroke).

And, the Patriot Act weakens financial privacy. The bill added additional amendments and improvements to the Bank Secrecy Act which already encourages FDIC member banks to profile account holders and report to the government (FBI, IRS, DEA) when you deviate from your usual spending or deposit habits. The Act exempts bank employees from liability for false reporting of a money laundering violation.

Michael Scardaville of the Heritage Foundation, however, isn't concerned about conferring this new power on bureaucrats. "Even if they wanted to, the program's employees simply won't have time to monitor who plays football pools, who has asthma, who surfs what Web site or even who deals cocaine or steals cars. They'll begin with intelligence reports about people already suspected of terrorism."{2}

Immigration Threats

Lincoln Caplan, writing in the November-December issue of Legal Affairs (a magazine of the Yale Law School), said that the U.S.A. Patriot Act "authorized law enforcement agencies to inspect the most personal kinds of information -- medical records, bank statements, college transcripts, even church memberships. But what is more startling than the scope of these new powers is that the government can use them on people who aren't suspected of committing a crime."

Although there has been some concern expressed about the intrusion of government into our lives, an even greater concern is how the Homeland Security Act fails to address the real threat to our country through lax enforcement of immigration laws. Michelle Malkin, author of Invasion, cites example after example of problems at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Foreign students getting visas to enter the U.S. constitute a major problem that is out of control. Malkin says that the bill establishing this new department doesn't do anything about it. There is also a problem with foreigners getting tourist visas to enter the U.S. and then overstaying their visas. The bill doesn't do anything about this problem either.

More than 115,000 people from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries are here illegally. Some 6,000 Middle Eastern men who have defied deportation orders remain on the loose. Add these numbers to those who are here legally, but still intend harm to the United States, and you can begin to grasp the extent of the problem.

Consider the case of Hesham Mohamed Hedayet, who shot and killed people at the Los Angeles International Airport. He managed to stay in this country by obtaining a work permit after his wife won residency in a visa lottery program (given to 50,000 foreigners on a random basis).

Michelle Malkin broke the story about the Washington, D.C. area sniper suspect John Malvo. The INS had him in custody but released him. The U.S. State Department failed to obtain a warrant for the arrest of the other sniper suspect, John Muhammad, after he was suspected of using a forged birth certificate to obtain a U.S. passport.

Congress needs to take another look at both the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act. In its rush to deal with the imminent terrorist threat, it has conferred broad powers to bureaucrats that should be refined and failed to address some crucial concerns in immigration that continue to threaten our safety. It is time for Congress to pass some common sense amendments to these two pieces of legislation.

History of Governmental Power

I think all of us would strongly support the President and Attorney General in their attempts to track down terrorists and bring them to justice. But some wonder if Congress has put too much power in the hands of the executive branch, power that could easily be abused by this administration or future administrations.

Let's consider our history. President John Adams used the Alien and Sedition Act to imprison his political enemies and curb newspaper editors critical of him. President Woodrow Wilson permitted his attorney general (Mitchell Palmer) to stop political dissent during the Palmer Raids. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt interned thousands of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.

It is interesting that some of the greatest expansions of powers have come under Republican presidents. The first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, suspended the writ of habeas corpus. (This is a judge's demand to bring a prisoner before him, with the intent to release people from unlawful detention.) This led to the imprisonment of physicians, lawyers, journalists, soldiers, farmers, and draft resisters. Sixteen members of the Maryland legislature were arrested in order to prevent them from voting for their state to secede from the Union. By the time the Civil War was over, 13,535 arrests had been made.

Although Democrats have often been credited with expanding the size and scope of the federal government, Republican administrations are actually the ones who have expanded various police powers. RICO and nearly all the seizure laws (where police can confiscate cars, boats, even homes without due process) were passed by Republican administrations.

Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post (Nov. 20, 2001) that "The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan have dramatically accelerated a push by the Bush administration to strengthen presidential powers, giving President Bush a dominance over American government exceeding that of other post-Watergate presidents and rivaling even Franklin D. Roosevelt's command."

Perhaps it is time for Congress to revisit this important topic of anti-terrorism and modify some of the provisions of the Patriot Act. Some have suggested that Congress pass legislation that would sunset all aspects of the Patriot Act. The bill currently has sunset provisions that apply to selected portions of the legislation. But sunset provisions do not apply to the expanded powers given to the federal government which weaken the Fourth Amendment protections we are guaranteed under the Bill of Rights. The bill was touted as an emergency wartime measure, but some of the most dangerous aspects of the bill would continue on even after America wins the war on terrorism. It is time to revisit this bill and make some necessary changes.

Christian Perspective on Government and Privacy

Let's focus in on the matter of government and privacy.

To begin with, Christians must acknowledge that Romans 13:1-7 teaches that civil government is divinely ordained by God. Government bears the sword, and that means it is responsible to protect citizens from foreign invaders and from terrorists. So on the one hand, we should support efforts by our government to make our society safer.

On the other hand, we should also work to prevent unwarranted intrusions into our privacy and any violation of our constitutional liberties. In the past, drawing lines was easier because an unconstitutional search was conducted by a person who came to your door. Today we live in a cyber age where our privacy can be violated by a computer keystroke.

In the past, what used to be called public records weren't all that public. Now they are all too public. And what used to be considered private records are being made public at an alarming rate. What should we do?

First, live your life above reproach. Philippians 2:14-15 says "Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world." 1 Timothy 3:2 says that an elder must be "above reproach" which is an attribute that should describe all of us. If you live a life of integrity, you don't have to be so concerned about what may be made public.

Second, get involved. When you feel your privacy has been violated or when you believe there has been an unwarranted governmental intrusion into your life, take the time to complain. Let the person, organization, or governmental agency know your concerns. Many people fail to apply the same rules of privacy and confidentiality on a computer that they do in real life. Your complaint might change a behavior and have a positive effect.

Third, call for your member of Congress to take another look at both the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act. In their rush to deal with the imminent terrorist threat, Congress may have expanded federal powers too much. Track congressional legislation and write letters. Citizens need to understand that many governmental policies pose a threat to our privacy. Bureaucrats and legislators are in the business of collecting information and will continue to do so unless we set appropriate limits.

Sadly, most Americans are unaware of the growing threats to their privacy posed by government and law enforcement. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. We need to strike a balance between fighting terrorism and protecting constitutional rights.

Notes

1. Cal Thomas, "More Power to the Government," Nov. 21, 2002.
2. Michael Scardaville, "TIA Targets Terrorists, Not Privacy," Nov. 22, 2002.

©2003 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Kerby AndersonKerby Anderson is president of Probe Ministries International. He holds masters degrees from Yale University (science) and from Georgetown University (government). He is the author of several books, including Christian Ethics in Plain Language, Genetic Engineering, Origin Science, Signs of Warning, Signs of Hope and Making the Most of Your Money in Tough Times. His new series with Harvest House Publishers includes: A Biblical Point of View on Islam, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality, A Biblical Point of View on Intelligent Design and A Biblical Point of View on Spiritual Warfare. He is the host of "Point of View" (USA Radio Network) heard on 360 radio outlets nationwide as well as on the Internet (www.pointofview.net) and shortwave. He is also a regular guest on "Prime Time America" (Moody Broadcasting Network) and "Fire Away" (American Family Radio). He produces a daily syndicated radio commentary and writes editorials that have appeared in papers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury, and the Houston Post.

 

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