Chertoff Thumbs Nose at Laptop Seizure Hearing

The U.S. Senate held a hearing June 25 to investigate the possible constitutional violations of a government program that allows Customs officials to search, seize or copy contents of laptops and smart phones even if the agency has no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The government told the committee to kiss off.

In a show of arrogance even unusual by Bush administration standards, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff refused to show for the hearing or to send a representative. Not only was Chertoff a no show, he has stonewalled the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution since April.

Subcommittee Chairman Russ Feingold had this to say:

"I asked DHS to send a witness to testify today. DHS responded that its preferred witness was unavailable on the day of the hearing. I asked DHS to send a different witness, but DHS declined. I felt it was so important to have a DHS witness here that I wrote a letter to Secretary Chertoff last week urging him to reconsider. That letter will be made part of the hearing record. I would put the Secretary's response in the record, as well, but he has not responded."

As Chertoff and the DHS see it, your laptop is no different from a suitcase or a bag, which are routinely searched at international borders. The Public Liaison Office at the U.S. Customs Headquarters in Washington recently said: "[L]aptop computers may be subject to detention for violation of criminal law ... if the laptop contains information with possible ties to terrorism, narcotics smuggling, child pornography or other criminal activity."

Or, apparently, no connection at all to anything criminal. You can just look suspicious and your government can toss and copy your electronic files, personal or business.

Again, Feingold:

"Aside from the privacy violation, there is reason for serious concern that these invasive searches are being targeted at Muslim Americans and Americans of Arab or South Asian descent. Many travelers from these backgrounds who have been subject to electronic searches have also been asked about their religious and political views. As we'll hear today, travelers have been asked why they chose to convert to Islam, what they think about Jews, and their views of the candidates in the upcoming election. This questioning is deeply disturbing in its own right. It also strongly suggests that border searches are being based at least in part on impermissible factors."

Maybe when Bush finally slinks away to Texas to cut brush or whatever one does on a "ranch" outside of Waco, we'll start getting some answers on just how much his administration has disregarded the constitutional rights of American citizens.