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Patriot Act redux?

CNET News.com Washington watcher Declan McCullagh says some in Congress are trying to pass new legislation that uses technology to keep closer tabs on you and me.

With Election Day fast approaching, it was only a matter of time before the usual congressional shenanigans that typically punctuate the political season.

This time, politicians appear to have seized on what could be called the Patriot Act strategy, drafting antiterrorism legislation in secret and then ramming it through the Senate and House of Representatives with minimal debate. Then it's back to the home districts to boast how they protected voters from the bad guys.

The vehicles chosen for this strategy are two bills described as being inspired by the 9/11 Commission's report, a politically potent text that's become a best-selling book. The Senate and House have approved their own versions of the legislation, and negotiators are now meeting privately to decide on the final draft.

Early indications are not promising. While portions of the massive legislation are no doubt praiseworthy, other important sections--especially those envisioning stuffing more information into government databases--deserve special scrutiny from privacy hawks.

Both the House and Senate bills coerce state governments into creating what critics are calling a national ID card.
Because the House version is nearly three times as long, its authors had more room to promote private agendas.

One section anticipates storing the "lifetime travel history of each foreign national or United States citizen" into a database for the convenience of government officials. It mentions passports, but there's nothing that would preclude recording the details of trips that Americans take inside the United States.

President Bush would be required to create a "secure information sharing" network to exchange data among law enforcement, military and spy agencies. Aside from a bland assurance that "civil liberties" will be protected, there are zero details on what databases will be vacuumed in or what oversight will take place.

A second network would be created by the first person to get the new job of national intelligence director. That network must "provide immediate access to information in databases of federal law enforcement agencies and the intelligence community that is necessary to identify terrorists."

It hardly needs to be said that snaring terrorists is what our government should be doing. But it's not clear that the House bill is a step in the right direction.

Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, hopes that the aides negotiating the final bill end up adopting the Senate language instead. It also would create an information-sharing network--while requiring that Congress receive semiannual reports on how the network is being used.

"There are dozens if not hundreds of government programs under way to do just that (already)," Dempsey warns. "They are fragmented; they are overlapping. They are occurring outside of any framework of oversight."

Still, the Senate bill is no prize. A last-minute amendment added by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would require the Department of Homeland Security to create an "integrated screening system" inside the United States.

McCain envisions erecting physical checkpoints, dubbed "screening points," near subways, airports, bus stations, train stations, federal buildings, telephone companies, Internet hubs and any other "critical infrastructure" facility deemed vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Secretary Tom Ridge would appear to be authorized to issue new federal IDs--with biometric identifiers--that Americans could be required to show at checkpoints.

Both the House and Senate bills

A few other courageous Washingtonians have raised similar concerns. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, warned last week that the House bill "will not make America safer (but will definitely) make us less free." And 25 former senior officials from the FBI, CIA and military have sent a letter to Congress indicating that the 9/11 Commission's recommendations are flawed because the report whitewashed what went wrong on Sept. 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, with only 15 days left before the election, politicians will be tempted to place expedience over sober analysis of what's permitted by the U.S. Constitution. That's what happened in October 2001 with the mad scramble to enact the Patriot Act, and history is about to repeat itself.