Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Buried among the many proposals made by the September 11 commission in its final report last week is the establishment of a watchdog group to ensure that the extra governmental powers it suggests are not abused.

“Many of our recommendations call for the government to increase its presence in our lives,” says the report, adding that the collection of anti-terror tools called the Patriot Act already has resulted in a “shift of power and authority to the government … .”

This shift, the report says, “calls for an enhanced system of checks and balances to protect the precious liberties that are vital to our way of life.”

The commission recommends federal standards for identification documents, such as driver’s licenses; greater information sharing among government agencies and the private sector; and greatly enhanced border and internal transport security.

In a suggestion that has set off alarm bells among civil liberties advocates, the report calls for the U.S. border security system to “be integrated into a larger network of screening points that includes our transportation system and access to vital facilities, such as nuclear reactors.”

“That could be a recipe for a system of internal checkpoints that would treat people traveling within the United States in the same way it treats those crossing its borders,” said Greg Nojeim, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office.

Commission members and staff denied that the introduction of federal standards for identity documents and a single system of screening would amount to the introduction of a national ID system through the back door.

“We don’t recommend an ID card,” said commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton. “We recommend federal standards for identity documents.”

But, they stressed the need to balance security with liberty.

“After any traumatic event, there’s a tendency to curtail civil liberties,” said commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. “The confidence of the public in the enhanced powers we call for relies on the assurance that these powers will not be abused, or employed for purposes other than those intended.”

But, as the report points out, “There is no office within the government whose job it is to look across the government at the actions we are taking to protect ourselves to ensure that liberty concerns are appropriately considered.”

To fill that gap, the commission calls for the president to lay out guidelines for information sharing that would “safeguard the privacy of the individuals about whom information is shared.” To enforce these guidelines, and guard against abuses, the report proposes the setting up of “a board within the executive branch … .”

The commission also calls for a “full and informed debate on the Patriot Act” before any decision is made to extend its key elements, which are scheduled to expire next year. “The burden of proof for retaining a particular governmental power should be on the executive,” the panel says.

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