WASHINGTON - An unlikely political coalition united Thursday against attempts by the government to undermine civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism.
"I think weve all learned the unfortunate lesson … that you cant trust anybody," said Mort Halperin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at a crowded news conference announcing the coalition, the In Defense of Freedom (www.indefenseoffreedom.org), at the National Press Club, a confederation of organizations ranging from the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union to the staunchly conservative Free Congress Foundation.
The U.S. Department of Justice wants its wiretapping and other surveillance capabilities vastly expanded, with the Internet and other modern communications technologies among the targets of the governments new war on terrorism. Copies of the DoJs legislative plan can be obtained at www.cdt.org.
When he was a United States senator from Missouri, Attorney General John Ashcroft was a cyberspace privacy champion. His change-of-heart about cybersurveillance, Halperin said, demonstrates that "when people get into the executive branch they forget about their commitments to civil liberties."
The proposal, released Thursday, would apply telephone wiretapping rules to the Internet and it would formally endorse Carnivore, the e-mail surveillance tool of the department that has been vehemently denounced by civil liberties advocates since its discovery last year, said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The issues surrounding cybersurveillance are, among other things, technologically complex, and the department of Justice should tap the expertise of technologists and "engage in a dialogue, to get an understanding of the problem," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, at the news conference.
Alarmed by the fevered race towards passing anti-terrorism legislation, much of which could effect civil liberties, coalition members have banded together to try to persuade lawmakers to slow down.
"I think its going to take some time to see the final introduced version and to fully analyze the potential impact on communications privacy," Sobel said. "But the early indications are that the proposal is far reaching and it remains to be seen whether a need for these sweeping changes can be demonstrated."
Particularly troubling, said Sobel, are attempts to remove the traditional line between domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence.
One lawmaker, Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, plans to submit legislation this week with the dual aim of protecting civil liberties while still giving law enforcement sufficient surveillance rights, said spokesman David Carle. Leahy has already posted a summary of what he plans to introduce on his website, www.senate.gov/~leahy.
Carle said Leahy is "working as rapidly as humanly possible" on proposals to temper the Aschcroft proposal, but added that "its a mistake to set artificial deadlines on this legislation, particularly with the delicate balance between civil liberties and law enforcement" under enormous pressure to shift.
The Senate has already passed one antiterrorism amendment to the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill that expands the wiretapping and cybersurveillance powers of law enforcement officers.
"Theres a lot of stuff here that needs to be publicly debated," said Mike Godwin, a policy analyst with the Center for Democracy and Technology. He said the package of legislative proposals was highly complex, and he was taking it home with him after work to read.
Civil liberties activists like Sobel and Godwin are frantically trying to obtain and digest the most updated versions of the document before it captivates lawmakers, who could pass the legislation as quickly as they choose.
Earlier this week, Ashcroft urged lawmakers to pass the legislation by the end of the week. But Sobel said thats unlikely to happen.
"Im hearing late today that the attempt to rush this through has subsided," said Sobel. "It sounds like they have backed off and there will in fact be hearings."