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Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism


In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, security emerged as perhaps the preeminent political issue in the country. But in recent years, some Americans have grown increasingly concerned that the emphasis on security has weakened civil liberties.

The debate over security and civil liberties ranges from federal courtrooms to the halls of Congress, from the White House to the Supreme Court. It is a debate that plays out daily on the nation's television and radio airwaves and all across the Internet.

The question is how far should the government go in protecting Americans from terrorist attack without limiting the civil liberties that citizens hold so dear? One key point of contention involves President Bush's decision to bypass a 1978 law that requires the government to get a court order before it can monitor the phone calls of citizens as part of criminal investigations.

The Wiretapping Debate

The president insists he has the authority to monitor international phone conversations involving citizens or legal residents inside the United States suspected of links with terrorist groups. But some members of Congress question Mr. Bush's contention that he has the authority to bypass the law during a time of war.

Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, has proposed that the Congress censure the president for his wiretapping program. "Under this theory, we no longer have a constitutional system consisting of three co-equal branches of government. We have a monarchy. We can fight terrorism without breaking the law. The rule of law is central to who we are as a people, and the president must return to the law," says Feingold.

Censure is a formal rebuke from the Congress and has been used sparingly in U.S. history, most notably against President Andrew Jackson in a dispute over documents in 1834. But Senator Feingold's censure proposal has drawn little support from other Democrats. The president's Republican supporters have made it clear they will block any attempt at a formal reprimand in either the Senate or House of Representatives.

Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, says, "I submit that the congressional leaders and the president did the right thing, the lawful thing, to protect our country and the people as they are sworn to do. Our president is an honest man. He is a candid man, a direct man, a strong leader and the people of America know it."

Presidental Powers in Time of War

The debate over civil liberties and the power of the presidency at a time of war can be heated and intense at times. Former White House counsel John Dean was a key player in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s that eventually forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Dean was initially part of a cover-up of White House involvement in the Watergate break-in, but later made headlines when he detailed the conspiracy before Congress and cooperated with prosecutors. In recent years, John Dean has become a critic of strong executive power.

In an exchange he had at a recent Senate hearing with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, Dean said, "I am telling you that I believe that this is a part of a very consistent, long term, early announced policy of this presidency that they are seeking to build presidential power for the sake of presidential power." Senator Hatch replied, "You have not evidence of that." Dean went on saying, "I have lots of evidence of that, senator." Orrin Hatch response was, "I don't think you have any."

During a recent speech in North Carolina, President Bush found himself on the defensive for his handling of the war on terror during a question and answer session with the audience that included this comment from a man named Harry Taylor. "In my lifetime I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by, my leadership in Washington, including the presidency, by the Senate and the House. And I feel like that despite your rhetoric, compassion and common sense have been left far behind during your administration, and I would hope from time to time that you would have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself, inside yourself," said Taylor.

The president responded that he had nothing to apologize for. "If we are at war we ought to be using tools necessary, within the Constitution, on a very limited basis a program that is reviewed constantly, to protect us. Now, you and I have a difference of agreement on what is needed to be protected. But you said, would I apologize for that and the answer is, 'absolutely not,'" said President Bush.

Balancing Security and Civil Liberties

Conservative supporters of the president say his administration has done a good job of balancing security and civil liberties. Clifford May, the president of a group that supports the war on terror called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says, "You do have to do certain things to win the war. Our Constitution and the rights we have, those are not a suicide pact. And so we should have the debate and we should try to find the balance, though we will never succeed entirely, between maximum civil liberties, but also making sure that we can effectively fight this war."

But administration critics say the rest of world is closely watching how the United States safeguards rights and liberties at a time of war. Richard Ben Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor who served on the independent commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says "Our principles are severely tested in dealing with a brutal enemy that seeks to murder, terrorize and dehumanize its adversaries. Yet we must avoid the temptation to give up the moral high ground as we confront an enemy whom we justifiably despise."

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the debate over civil liberties is not new and one that probably will not be resolved anytime soon. “How do you reconcile individual liberty with national security and the threats that may be existing at any time to the health and welfare and safety of the American people? This is an enduring controversy. We're going to see the same arguments made in 2006 that have been made repeatedly in American history. I doubt that we come any closer to resolving the ultimate dispute because, in a sense, it is not resolvable," says Sabato.

One example of the evolving balance between security and civil liberties was renewal of the anti-terror laws known as the Patriot Act earlier this year. The Patriot Act was passed shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks and made it easier for government agents to track suspected terrorists inside the country. But some liberals and even a few conservatives in Congress demanded changes when the law came up for renewal late last year. As a result, civil liberties protections were added to the bill as part of a compromise signed into law by President Bush.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.