After Sept. 11

Many continue to disagree about the balance between civil liberties and security

Critics argue that since Sept. 11, all levels of government have confiscated and compromised important civil liberties in the name of national security. In rebuttal, supporters of these moves point out that there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States in the last six years. While that debate rages, both the executive director of Arizona's office of the American Civil Liberties Union and a Republican legislator--recently returned from military service in Iraq--agree on one thing: This isn't the first time in American history that civil liberties have been impacted by wartime.

"There's an ebb-and-flow activity in these laws," says Rep. Jonathan Paton, from Tucson's eastside, "and we're seeing that again. Ultimately, we'll go back to life as usual, until the next attack."

Alessandra Soler Meetze of the ACLU isn't sure about that. She says people like herself "are all experiencing pent-up anger and frustration over assaults on the Constitution which have battered the Bill of Rights and side-stepped long-standing precedents."

These civil-liberties issues include some specific to Arizona. One mentioned by Soler Meetze is a "virtual" border fence being implemented near Arivaca, southwest of Tucson.

On a community Web site, a local resident writes of this project: "The tower that now lords over Arivaca ... has high-tech cameras that can read a license plate at 5 miles. That means that Arivaca is now under surveillance 24/7.

"One Border Patrol official stated at an Arivaca community meeting," this statement continues, "that our loss of privacy was a sacrifice we had to make because of Sept. 11."

Soler Meetze observes: "Our technology is outpacing our privacy laws."

Another civil-liberties border issue is raised by Joe Watkins, a local representative of Amnesty International (an organization to which I belong). Watkins expresses concerns about law-enforcement functions along the border being awarded to private contractors.

"The Border Patrol can make certain agreements with nongovernmental organizations (like Amnesty)," Watkins says, "but when those tasks are privatized, how are human rights guaranteed?"

Watkins adds that within the last year, he has heard stories of racial profiling being used against Arab residents of Tucson. Two of these cases concerned harassment by neighbors, while another involved federal law-enforcement officials.

Soler Meetze mentions a provision of the recently adopted state budget to illustrate how civil-liberty issues potentially impact each of us. This measure requires DNA samples be collected from those arrested for certain crimes in Arizona, in order to obtain "identification characteristics." This information is then to be turned over to the Department of Public Safety.

"These people may not be convicted," Soler Meetze says.

Paton, who voted for the budget, takes another perspective.

"I don't see a big difference between fingerprints and DNA," he says. "Both open up identity, and most people say there's nothing wrong with fingerprinting."

But Soler Meetze sees the addition of information, like DNA, to a massive governmental databank as a major potential problem. As another example, she cites procedures used with the federal government's "no-fly" list.

"We're representing a nun whose name is on the list," Soler Meetze says of the ACLU, "and there's no way of knowing why."

Paton says he has mixed feelings about the collection of huge amounts of personal data, by both the government and private businesses.

"Our fundamental right as Americans to be left alone is being compromised," he acknowledges, on one hand. But on the other, he adds: "Having a governmental database reduces the need to collect so much data, because it makes the analysis more efficient. It's like Google on steroids.

"We need a balance," Paton continues, "and it's a healthy debate to have."

Paton says that he hears complaints much more frequently about private businesses collecting personal information. Not only can this lead to identity theft, he says, but his constituents "fear they're under the gun by unscrupulous people."

Paton also refers to his work making public the records of Child Protective Services as a civil-liberties issue related to freedom of the press.

"It's an example about how government will be held more accountable," he says, "when they have to open up."

At the national level, Soler Meetze says the ACLU opposes eight of the dozens of components of the USA PATRIOT Act adopted after Sept. 11. "It went too far, too fast," she believes.

The group also objects to the controversial wiretapping program operated by the National Security Agency.

"If it's done in accordance with the law," Paton counters, "it's fine." He refers to a case he heard about in which an Iraqi was apprehended in this country sending information on U.S. soldiers to terrorists in his homeland.

"It shouldn't intrude on an American's everyday life," Paton says about wiretapping, "but if someone is getting calls from a terrorist, it's legitimate. ... If it's reviewed by a court or judge, I don't have a problem with it."

In Soler Meetze's view, opposing measures like the government's wiretapping program can be difficult.

"The hard part is standing up for civil liberties in times like these," she says. "We can balance security and civil liberties, but that's not a priority for (the Bush) administration."

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly