The Bush administration has announced a series of steps in recent days aimed at better protecting the United States from further terrorist attacks. The measures include fingerprinting foreign visitors who might pose a security threat and making it easier for FBI agents to spy on people whom they suspect of having terrorist links. But, civil liberties groups and some members of Congress worry that the government is taking on new powers that threaten freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Some opposition Democrats and even a few Republicans in Congress are voicing concerns about the administration's new tactics in the domestic war on terrorism.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, delivered this warning to FBI Director Robert Mueller as he sought congressional support for his plan to restructure the agency to focus on counter-terrorism.
"No one in the Congress or in the administration can ignore the Constitution of the United States," he said. "To do so, we do it at our peril and we weaken the United States; we do not strengthen the United States."
Administration officials, from the president on down, insist the new anti-terrorism safeguards are needed and do not pose a threat to civil liberties.
In his recent announcement about fingerprinting and photographing some foreign visitors who are deemed as possible security risks, Attorney General John Ashcroft said the increased threat of terrorism requires a more sophisticated response from U.S. law enforcement.
"Their tactics rely on evading recognition at the border and escaping detection within the United States," he said. "Their terrorist mission is to defeat America, to destroy our values and to kill innocent people."
Civil liberties and Arab-American groups complain that the new entry and exit guidelines for foreign visitors will inevitably lead to racial profiling, with border agents pre-disposed to target Muslims and Middle Easterners as the most likely threats.
Nihad Awad is executive director of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "We believe it is going to be a wasteful, discriminatory and counterproductive measure that will not help secure the borders because it is just a pure form of discrimination," he said.
Civil liberties groups have also criticized the new guidelines making it easier for FBI agents to scan the Internet and monitor suspicious individuals as part of their counter-terrorism efforts. A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union says the new powers will do little to make Americans safer but will inevitably make them less free.
Human rights activists say the domestic crackdown is also hurting the U.S. image abroad.
William Schultz is executive director of Amnesty International USA. He says the continued detention of scores of foreign nationals on visa violations is a particular sore point.
"It alienates those nationals, their communities, their families, their friends, and it creates potential adversaries for the United States where there were none before," he said.
But FBI Director Robert Mueller says authorities believe that some of those being held either had contact with or helped some of the 19 hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks. And he says the new anti-terror tactics being implemented are necessary to counter a determined foe that for too long has exploited the openness of American society.
"I still believe that we have to protect the freedoms that we have in this country that are guaranteed by the Constitution, or all the work we do to protect it will be at naught," he said. "But there are things that we can do, well within the Constitution, that will assist us in identifying those amongst our midst who wish to kill Americans."
For the moment, at least, it appears the Bush administration has the public on its side.
Recent opinion polls suggest that Americans are more concerned about preventing further terrorist attacks than they are about the possible erosion of constitutional rights.