Editorial: Giving up privacy for safety

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    By Seth Lewis

    As the machinations of America rumble back to life after last week”s terrorism, law enforcement officials have put their investigation into overdrive. The FBI now wants Congress to ease wiretapping restrictions to help thousands of agents stalk terrorists involved with last week”s airline assaults — and stop future attacks.

    This, of course, comes at a price. Giving the government expanded wiretap access may mean a loss of civil liberties, a breach of constitutional-protected privacy.

    But now, more than ever, it”s worth it.

    With terrorists allegedly on the loose, Americans shouldn”t complain as Attorney General John Ashcroft urges Congress to relax wiretap restrictions. Martial law requires such compromises, and while the nation hasn”t officially declared war, last week”s attacks thrust America on the edge of conflict.

    But as the country tiptoes toward heightened security, it should proceed with caution. This privacy breach should be the exception, not the rule.

    Still, the current situation demands immediate action.

    Today”s surveillance laws are archaic at best. In an era when terrorists use satellites and e-mail, federal investigators are far behind — legally if not technologically.

    “There are areas of our laws and procedures which give us better tools against organized crime, against illegal gambling, for example, than we have against terrorists,” Ashcroft said in a news conference Saturday.

    Suspicion of terrorism isn”t enough to legally obtain wiretap authorization. And when investigators do track criminals, current laws require them to wiretap a single phone number — not a person. With the proliferation of disposable cell phones, Ashcroft told reporters Monday, “it simply doesn”t make sense to have the surveillance authority associated with the hardware or with the phone instead of with the person or the terrorist.”

    This isn”t to say the nation should throw away constitutional rights. As Americans, we prize our privacy as much as our protection. To completely abandon one for the other — even in the wake of such a tragic attack — would be short-sighted indeed.

    A knee-jerk embrace of expanded wiretapping could plunge America into a police-state society. But with nearly 5,000 people still missing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, something must be done to curb the terrorism.

    Even if some privacy is the price.

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