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Fighting terrorism requires law changes

LAST WEEK'S terrorist attacks caught the United States painfully unprepared. Whether the carnage was preventable or not, this tragedy -- and the glaring intelligence failures that let it happen -- must not be used as a pretext for measures that endanger the fundamental freedoms that are our birthright.

Yes, tough and pragmatic laws are needed to prevent terrorism and espionage. And that should include keeping closer tabs on visitors to our country.

But terrorism will have won if those laws unnecessarily fetter the fundamental civil liberties that have distinguished the United States from the rest of the world.

The Bush administration is preparing an emergency package of antiterrorism legislation. The White House wants Congress to eliminate the statute of limitations on terrorist crimes, increase penalties on people aiding terrorists and make it easier to go after those who bankroll terrorists.

This seems reasonable. So far, though, the administration has not offered any language for these measures. Yet it wants to have the package passed as emergency legislation by the week's end.

Congress should not be too hasty. Emotionalism could lead to shortsighted decisions that would erode our cherished constitutional rights and protections.

Some changes in the law are relatively simple -- and relatively uncontroversial. Federal wiretap law, for example, is cumbersome and outdated.

The current law insists that, in applying for a court-ordered surveillance permit, the authorities specify "each of the facilities or places" where eavesdropping is requested.

This may have made perfect sense in the simpler times when most telephone communications were conducted through land lines at fixed locations. Today's bewildering variety of mobile telephones -- from sophisticated satellite phones to subscriber cell phones to throwaway handsets that are sold at gas stations and convenience stores -- has made the language unworkable.

Or, as Attorney General John Ashcroft, put it, "It simply doesn't make sense to have the surveillance authority associated with the hardware or the phone instead of with the person or the terrorist."

This flaw is easily fixed through rewriting.

But dealing with other technological advances is much tougher. Encryption is an example.

Because of the enormous power of the ubiquitous desktop and laptop computers, code-making has become laughably easy. The downside, for government investigators, is that many codes now are virtually unbreakable -- even those generated by foreign or domestic software freely available on the Internet.

That's not all. During World War II, spies hid secrets in minuscule fragments of film that were embedded in typewritten text. Only close examination detected such microdots in ordinary-looking business or personal letters.

Microdots are long gone. Their modern equivalent is steganography, the science of hiding encoded information in innocent-looking images. A photo of teen idol Britney Spears on a pop music Web page can hide a coded message visible only to someone with the correct decoding key.

These are breakthrough technologies Osama bin Laden and other terrorists are believed to use in their communications.

Can they be curbed? And at what cost? The scientific community is divided. Politicians, though, want to act. Some say only codes that can be opened by law enforcement agencies in emergencies should be allowed.

Terrorists are lethally effective because they act and think without regard for the rule of law. That makes combatting terrorism so much more difficult.

Draconian laws also are a two-headed sword.

Early this month -- even before the attacks in New York and Washington -- Germany's government proposed a law outlawing extremist religious groups that can operate as covers for terrorists.

"There is an increasing fundamentalist extremist scene among some followers of the Islamic faith in Germany," the Interior Ministry explained in a statement.

But that very same law, which is now being reviewed by Germany's constituent states, could be used as a pretext for banning other organizations that the government might find undesirable.

Terrorism is a challenge to the whole world. But governments here and abroad should avoid rash responses. Terrorism will have won if its effect is to destroy the foundations of democracy.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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