May 18, 2006

Civil liberties debate leaves much of America cold

By Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A furor over the trade-off between
civil liberties and security in the fight against terrorism is
raging in the U.S. Congress, think tanks and the media, but the
heated debate leaves much of America cold.

In Washington, attention was focused on Senate confirmation
hearings of Gen. Michael Hayden, the nominee for CIA chief who
ran a domestic spying program, and on a report last week that
the government gathered phone records of millions of Americans.

But the debate was unlikely to change many minds in a
country where opinion polls show more than half of the people
believe that sacrificing some rights is a necessary price to
pay for safety after the September 11 attacks.

"People look at it through the lens of 9/11 and understand
that we haven't been attacked since then and that there are
reasons for that other than just good luck," said Mac Thrower,
editorial page editor at The Paducah Sun in Kentucky.

"I think for that reason there's pretty strong support for
what the president is doing in that area, not a great deal of
concern about a threat to civil liberties," he said.

A CNN poll released on Thursday showed 54 percent of
Americans support gathering phone records to find terrorists. A
few days earlier, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 51
percent approve of the way Bush was protecting their privacy.

According to a USA Today/Gallup survey last week, 53
percent of Americans think the government has restricted civil
liberties appropriately or "not far enough."


Analysts see many factors behind the poll numbers,
including a preoccupation with other issues like the war in
Iraq, the economy, jobs and immigration that means people are
giving a lower priority to rights protection.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic member of the September
11 Commission which investigated the 2001 attacks, said the
numbers reflected an indifference which was discouraging, but
not surprising.

"Unless it directly affects an individual, people are not
as vigilant as they ought to be and perhaps not as educated as
they ought to be on the importance of our constitutional
privacy and civil liberties protections," he said

Some experts also said many Americans believed the civil
liberties debate was exaggerated, and was undermining a vital
weapon against terrorism.

"Hyperventilating worrywarts fret that fascism has
descended," Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign
Relations, wrote in a commentary published by the Los Angeles
Times this week.

"If civil liberties agitators, grandstanding politicians
and self-righteous newspaper editorialists have their way, we
will have to give up our most potent line of defense because of
largely hypothetical concerns about privacy violations."

Other analysts say the polls highlight underlying
resignation due to an erosion of civil liberties over time.

"There's been an assault on Americans' privacy. Everything
we do in our society seems to be monitored, every purchase we
make is collected by private entities. I think people are just
used to it today," said Lewis Katz, a law professor and privacy
expert at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

While America as a whole may not be overly concerned, Arab
Americans -- who feel hardest hit by the measures -- say the
country needed to realize everyone's rights were at risk.

"This is not just about Arab Americans. What people really
need to understand is that this affects every single person
living in this country. Everyone's civil liberties are at
stake," said Rana Abbas-Chami, deputy director of the
American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee's Michigan office.