Has the Bush administration compromised civil liberties in the effort to prevent terrorist attacks? The question was debated at a town hall meeting in Los Angeles, where high school students took part in a discussion on security and freedom.
The students joined a meeting with Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization that is spearheading criticism of some of the provisions of the Patriot Act. Congress passed the comprehensive security bill in 2001 and renewed it this year. The law is intended to foster the sharing of information between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Among its many provisions, it permits Internet and telephone surveillance, and the seizure of records in the course of investigations into terrorism or espionage.
Critics of the Patriot Act also question how officials are using advanced surveillance technology. News reports say the National Security Agency is scanning huge amounts of data in a search for suspicious patterns. U.S. officials acknowledge eavesdropping on Americans when they communicate with people overseas who are suspected of terrorist links to groups such as al Qaida. President Bush says the Justice Department closely monitors the program, and that it is needed to protect the American people.
But Strossen says the measures curtail essential freedoms and infringe on the rights of Americans who are not under suspicion.
"In other words, these measures are the worst of both worlds,” she said. “They do make all of us less free, but they do not make any of us more safe."
At a meeting sponsored by the group Town Hall Los Angeles, Ethan Ludmir of North Hollywood High School started the questioning with a welcome and a challenge.
"Professor, thank you so much for coming out here to speak with us,” he said. “We're thrilled to have you. All of us from North Hollywood are delighted to have you here. Unfortunately, your first person from California is going to be a crazy conservative, so I thought I would drill you on a couple of things?"
In the face of a new kind of enemy, Ludmir asked, how can terrorist attacks be avoided without effective surveillance? And hasn't the absence of an attack since 2001 shown that the government is indeed keeping Americans safe?
In her response, the ACLU president said the U.S. constitution guarantees basic rights regardless of security conditions. She said the issue cannot be divided along liberal-conservative lines, adding that some conservatives share her concerns.
"I know that on many issues, including the national security issues, support for civil liberties as a factual matter does cut across party lines and ideological lines,” she added. “Many conservatives care deeply about restricting government power."
Although most critics of the new security measures come from the liberal side of the spectrum, some conservatives have spoken out against them as well.
Such discussions are complicated by disputed issues of fact, especially in a field such as counter-terrorism in which government methods are kept secret. There are also contested issues of law on which civil liberties lawyers and Justice Department officials disagree.
But the ACLU president found a receptive listener in Oriana McGee, a student from Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.
"It was very informative,” she said. “I happen to agree with a lot of her ideas and the ACLU ideas. I think it was helpful for us students, especially learning American history this year."
For student Ezekiel Golvin, the exchange offered food for thought on an important, but difficult subject.
"I found it fairly informative and very interesting, as I have recently become interested in politics and the workings of the government," he said.
He hopes to learn more about the issues.
Earlier this year, as the bill was reauthorized, Congress modified some provisions of the Patriot Act in response to criticisms from civil liberties groups. The new version has more stringent requirements, for example, on government efforts to obtain a person's library or medical records, or monitor phone calls in what is called a "roving wiretap," which involves calls made from telephones at different locations.
Polls show that Americans are divided over whether the Patriot Act and other government measures go too far, or strike the right balance, in the effort to protect them.
In August, a lower court judge agreed with the ACLU on one disputed issue, saying warrantless wiretaps approved by the Bush administration on calls between Americans and overseas suspects violate the rights of Americans. Bush administration officials have criticized the ruling and the Justice Department is appealing it.