Homeland Security?

Some debate occurred among the editors of The Rockford Institute’s Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture before the Institute’s Dec. 12 forum, “Homeland Security Versus the Constitution,” about whether the presentation should be a discussion or a debate.

“I’m kind of wishing we hadn’t [decided to have a discussion instead of a debate] because I’d really like to tear this up,” said Scott Richert, executive editor of Chronicles, referring to the remarks of the Chronicles’ Legal Affairs Editor Stephen B. Presser, who spoke first.

Richert and Presser presented opposing views on the Homeland Security Act to a crowd of about 60 at the Institute’s offices near downtown Rockford. Richert opposed the Act, saying it endangered individual liberty, while Presser defended the Act, saying, “Our system of checks and balances is adequate to deal with any threats to our freedom.”

Richert said: “But, ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ And, apparently, under the Homeland Security Act, it’s the watchmen.”

Since President George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act into law Nov. 25, abundant skepticism exists about whether the government has given itself too much power over the people. Among other things, the Act reshapes portions of the federal bureaucracy into the new Department of Homeland Security, which combines parts of 22 existing federal agencies, including the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, the FBI and the CIA.

Additionally, thanks to a last-minute 16-page insertion to the Homeland Security bill, the Act also includes a Cyber Security Enhancement Act (CSEA). The CSEA expands the ability of police to conduct Internet or telephone surveillance without first obtaining a court order, and mandates Internet Service Providers (ISP) to disclose information to police.

Thus, the federal government now has the power to keep tabs on seemingly any person it chooses. In those tabs, the government can keep track of academic grades, Web site visits, purchases, medical prescriptions, events attended and the e-mails of any person.

Richert said the inclusion of the CSEA in the Homeland Security Act proves how major corporations such as Microsoft may have swayed the legislation.

“When we combine the government’s legitimate abilities to protect us and the MBA’s legitimate abilities to seek profits, the result is the illegitimate expansion of government powers,” Richert said. “The CSEA provisions essentially allow any government agency — federal, state or local — to obtain any information about you from your ISP. Under the Homeland Security Act, ISPs have every reason not to act in good faith. An emergency is whatever they tell you is an emergency.”

Richert said somewhat sarcastically that racial profiling could be more effective than giving the federal government the power to eavesdrop on all people.

“Why does this 500-page bill not have anything in it that does nothing to this idea of immigration but does give the government the power to go into our e-mail?” Richert said. “They’re Muslim. Leave the rest of us alone.”

Presser, also the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History at Northwestern University, said, “At one level, this just creates a new bureaucracy.” But, he said, it also provides an opportunity to bring together agencies that have been doing “a terrible job.”

“It’s important to remember that George W. Bush is our first MBA president and that American MBAs have made us what we are today—the envy of the world,” Presser said. “We’re using a corporate model here in the Department of Homeland Security, and we’re going to hope that it works better here than it did in Enron.”

The Homeland Security Act is largely the result of post-Sept. 11, 2001, tensions. Presser said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the result of poor immigration laws, poor Middle East relations and the rise of Muslim fanaticism. He said the solution would be for the United States to close its borders, find a compromise to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that fairly “compensates” Palestinians, and to “carry a big stick and talk loudly.” Specifically, he said, preemptive strikes against Iraq are eminent.

“It [a pre-emptive strike] is necessary because Iraq supports terrorism,” Presser said. “These are, in short, not nice folks.”

Presser likened the United States to a Rome of the 21st century. He said the United States has the responsibility to step forward as a central superpower. “Somebody has to do God’s other work,” he said. “And I think we’ve got a responsibility that can’t be avoided.”

Presser also said it is important that the United States takes caution in how it deals with regime change in the Middle East. “I don’t think anybody in their right minds wants to see these little subsidiaries of the United States,” he said.

Tom Fleming, president of The Rockford Institute and editor of Chronicles, said it is important that people not forget that, “The Middle East is the graveyard of imperial projects,” and that Iraq was once Mesopotamia.

Richert said the Homeland Security Act is filled with good intentions. “But, we know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and so is the road to despotism,” he said.

Presser said Americans should be worried more about immigration laws, Middle East relations and repealing the legislation of the Bill Clinton administration than about the Homeland Security Act.

“The bottom line is that there are many more horrific things to worry about,” Presser said. “It is important to remember that this is not repealing the Constitution. I don’t think that most of this legislation is a threat to most of us.”

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