WASHINGTON – Civil liberties experts say Americans may not be feeling the pinch now, but new laws on the books written in the wake of last year's terror attacks can be abused by less than scrupulous authorities seeking to target non-terror suspects.
"There is an increasing groundswell of concern in America about President Bush’s and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s determination to cut back on our freedom in the name of safety," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's legislative office in Washington, D.C.
The ACLU announced Wednesday a $3.5 million campaign to mobilize the public against what it calls egregious civil liberties violations by the Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Among the activities the ACLU will embark on is a national advertising campaign, lobbying to encourage communities to pass resolutions protecting rights at the local level and litigation.
"There is already a movement out there and we’re going to fuel it," said Emily Whitfield, spokeswoman for the ACLU's national office.
But U.S. officials say stories from the ACLU about detainments and civil liberties infringements are patently false.
"No one is detained for their views, only if someone is breaking the law," said Mark Corallo, a Justice Department spokesman who called ACLU charges "typical rhetoric."
Corallo said the federal government has detained a total of 763 people since Sept. 11 on immigration charges and held them because they "were of special interest to our [terrorist] investigation."
Of that number, 30 are still in custody, he said.
"It’s nowhere near the 6,000 they claim. How [the ACLU] got that number is beyond me."
And some would-be targets of the terror probe say they see no problem with profiling if it will prevent future attacks.
"If my daughter gets blown up, her civil liberties don’t matter," warned Rob Sobhani, an Iranian-American professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University.
Sobhani said the government must be vigilant to prevent abuses and stereotyping, but he understands why law enforcement has a careful eye on men of Arab and Middle Eastern background, shared by all 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
"There is no doubt that Al Qaeda has cells and sympathizers in America, so there needs to be a balance," he said.
But the ACLU says profiling isn't the only issue on the table -- they are concerned about broader wiretapping laws, increased surveillance of American citizens, non-citizens being detained without legal representation and secret home searches under the USA Patriot Act, which was signed by the president last year after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Whitfield said her organization has documentation of "real life victims" who have been caught up in the dragnet of increased surveillance, including a Wisconsin nun who was detained on her way to protest the controversial School of Americas training facility in Georgia, and a college student who claims she was questioned by federal agents for carrying a poster critical of Bush’s policies.
"We’re talking about principles here. Once they are being violated, you have to fight for them," Whitfield said. "This concern cuts across the left-right political spectrum."
Of particular concern for civil libertarians are "black bag searches," authority given to police to search a residence when no one is home and without the knowledge of the homeowner. That power was granted under the Patriot Act for regular criminal cases beyond terrorism as was increased surveillance of e-mail and Web-browsing habits.
Corallo counters that wiretapping powers are only granted through warrants and with probable cause as stated in the law.
He added that detentions, arrests and surveillance are all conducted under strict rules.
"We are not here to spy on you," Corallo said. "Were there abuses in the past? Yes, but we’ve corrected them. We’re here to protect your civil liberties, not erode them."
Still, political activists and analysts say that it's what people don't know that will hurt them.
"There are people who say, if you’ve done nothing wrong, than you have nothing to fear. My response is Usama bin Laden agrees with you," said George Getz, spokesman for the Libertarian Party. "If people are willing to surrender their freedom, then the terrorists are winning."
Getz said it's the government's own mishandling of intelligence-gathering and immigration laws that led to the attacks, and now the government wants to make up for it by grabbing more power.
David Kopel, an analyst with the Independence Institute, said the biggest concern is not what is happening today, but what will happen in the future.
"I was glad when George Bush was elected and he appointed John Ashcroft to Attorney General, but some of these provisions will be on the books forever," Kopel said. "We might have others … who might be predisposed to abusing the law."