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Safe & Free - Civil Liberties in the Age of Terrorism

There are no graver threats to civil liberties than those posed when we go to war. Even as we grieve for those whose lives were cut short by the tragic events of September 11, Congress' hasty approval of anti-terrorism legislation indicates that our nation is destined to repeat the mistakes of the past: abandoning the cherished values enshrined in the Bill of Rights.

Even as we share the desire to protect our families from violence, civil libertarians have been presented with extraordinary challenges. We must protect Arab Americans, Muslims and South Asians from hate crimes and racial profiling. And we must balance the need for greater security with the need for freedom.

The ACLU was bitterly disappointed when, despite the efforts of allied organizations and tens of thousands of supporters, we failed to prevent federal anti-terrorism legislation from passing. We were disappointed not because we oppose reasonable efforts to improve national security, but because this legislation fails to strike a crucial balance between safety and liberty. This legislation is filled with measures that expand intelligence agencies' powers to wiretap, spy, infiltrate, conduct covert searches, and detain and deport immigrants. The anti-terrorism legislation imperils some of the very civil liberties this war is intended to protect.

It's true that America must make changes to improve security against terrorists. It's also true that many new security measures put in place to protect air travel and prevent the spread of anthrax are working and don't violate our basic freedoms. Those changes prove we can both enhance security and still protect our liberties.

In contrast, the anti-terrorism legislation dramatically expands the power of government to invade our privacy by secretly reading our e-mail, tracking our Web surfing, and even entering our homes without our knowledge. This sweeping new law also permits the indefinite detention of non-citizens, including legal immigrants who have lived in the United States most of their lives.

What is so dangerous about these expansions? The FBI and other federal agencies will be able to use these extraordinary powers without any meaningful judicial oversight. The separation of powers in our Constitution is one of the most important safeguards of our basic freedom. Our Constitution requires police and prosecutors to prove to a judge that there is sufficient evidence that a particular person has committed a crime before the government can invade that person's privacy by searching or seizing their property. Stripping courts of this power is a recipe for abuse by overzealous government officials.

Americans know from history that during times of crisis, civil liberties too often have been ignored. Today, we recall with shame the forced internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. Most Americans also regret the systematic abuses of the McCarthy era when thousands of innocent Americans were unjustly blacklisted because of the fears of communism. In the 1960s, the abuses continued with the FBI's systematic surveillance and disruption of civil rights leaders, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We now know that in virtually every decade of the 20th century, the government abused the basic freedoms of American citizens in the name of protecting national security.

The ACLU fears that, once again, our government is taking drastic measures with little time to understand the ramifications. The new anti-terrorism legislation erodes our basic freedoms in ways that are unnecessary and misguided and should be reversed at the earliest opportunity.

With a weakened judiciary, who will monitor law enforcement for abuses in these times? Will Congress have the fortitude to provide meaningful oversight after caving in to the political pressure to approve these sweeping new powers for President Bush with little debate?

Our nation's free press has an important role as watchdogs of government actions. In times of crisis, media sources that are independent, reliable and uncensored are essential to keep people informed.

Once informed, the American people must be the ultimate check on government abuses in the name of security.

In past times of crisis, our government has harassed, investigated and arrested people solely because of their race, religion, national origin, speech or political beliefs. We must not allow this to happen again, even as we work together to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks.

-By Deborah Jacobs, ACLU-NJ Executive Director

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