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Liberties under siege.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Attorney General John Ashcroft has given the FBI broad new powers to spy on Americans, arguing that the agency needs greater ability to gather intelligence in the war against terrorism. Recent developments, however, have shown the FBI's problems have less to do with limited access to information and more to do with an inability to properly analyze and communicate the information it already has.

The move is vintage Ashcroft. Since Sept. 11, his inclination has been to exponentially expand the federal government's ability to intrude upon the lives of Americans and to erode civil liberties, rather than address the failures of this nation's intelligence agencies.

Case in point: On the same day that Ashcroft announced the expansion of investigative powers, FBI Director Robert Mueller conceded that his agency botched the handling of warnings about the threats of suicide hijackings prior to Sept. 11. Had the FBI pieced together the hints it already had in hand, the hijackings might have been prevented, he said.

Shortly after Sept. 11, Congress granted law enforcement agencies an array of new investigative powers that were more than sufficient to generate the information needed for an effective counterterrorism campaign. Yet Ashcroft, without consulting Congress, has decided to lift restrictions on FBI investigative practices that were enacted for good reason nearly three decades ago.

Many Americans vividly recall the abuses of civil liberties that took place in the 1960s and 1970s under the name of law enforcement. Under the regime of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI conducted extensive spying on Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, anti-war groups and thousands of Americans who availed themselves of their constitutional right to be critical of the government.

After the disclosure of the FBI's notorious Cointelpro program, the government imposed restrictions that limited investigators' ability to conduct fishing expeditions without probable cause. These guidelines did nothing to weaken the FBI's ability to investigate crime. If the FBI wanted to conduct surveillance by following people, tapping their phones or reading their e-mail, all it had to do was go to court to show evidence of illegal activity and obtain a warrant.

Now Ashcroft insists that these restrictions hamstring FBI investigators. He has given agents free range to target churches, synagogues and mosques without probable cause and to monitor Web sites and chat rooms for content deemed questionable, not by a court, but by the FBI.

Ashcroft and the president insist there's nothing to worry about, that civil liberties will be protected. But there's no reason to think the FBI will prove any more capable of maintaining reasonable limits on its information gathering now than it was in the past.

Americans understand the need to guard against terrorism. But they also understand the need to protect the core rights and values that make us a free country. Ashcroft should rescind his policy changes and respect the Constitution.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Ashcroft lifts restrictions on domestic spying; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Words:481
Previous Article:Giving: A passing grade.
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