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Power, Ever More Power

May 25, 2003

When it passed the USA Patriot Act in October 2001, giving law enforcement agents sweeping new powers, Congress unleashed a spying free-for-all that shows no sign of abating. Pentagon analysts are even trying to figure out if they can nab terrorists by watching how people walk -- "gait recognition," it's called.

Now pushing for even broader authority, the Bush administration's operating principle seems to be if a lot of power is good, a lot more would be better.

Here is what's on the table now:

* "Patriot Act II," a hush-hush draft that would give the Justice Department more power to snoop and more leverage over suspects. This measure, formally known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, seeks to free the FBI from requirements that it get a judge's OK before prying into a person's phone, bank or credit records. It would expand government power to make secret arrests, like those of hundreds of people, mostly Middle Eastern nationals, after Sept. 11, 2001. The Justice Department largely refused to reveal the identities of those suspects, where they were detained or the reasons for their arrest. The draft measure would also allow the attorney general to strip Americans of their citizenship in some cases for donating to what they may have thought were legitimate nonprofit groups.

Although the measure doesn't officially exist, a copy was leaked this year. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has declined to brief Congress on his proposals.

* The CIA and the military are asking for authority to peruse phone records, credit card records and e-mail logs of people in the U.S. These agencies can ask the FBI for much of this, but the Bush administration believes that giving the CIA and the Pentagon direct authority would be more efficient. It would also mark an unprecedented expansion in the mission of the CIA and the military. Senate Democrats struck this program from a larger bill but it probably will return.

* The Defense Department wants permission from Congress to use a new high-powered computer system, costing billions to create, to paw through the private records of millions of Americans in search of patterns that might -- might -- lead to a terrorist. The architects of this creepy Terrorism Information Awareness initiative (previously Total Information Awareness) want access to health-care files, rental car receipts, employment and school records, credit histories, e-mail traffic and more.

Set against the broad Patriot Act powers already in place and the administration's continued refusal to release the House-Senate investigation into the 2001 terrorist attacks, these proposals are assaults on the Constitution.

Americans understand the need to temporarily relinquish some liberties in light of terrorist threats. But so far, neither the president nor Ashcroft has identified what specific intelligence weak spots remain and why the prosecutorial tools they have aren't enough. Until Congress hears compelling arguments, its answer should be no.

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