As Barack Obama continues to fill out his prospective cabinet, attention on Capitol Hill is turning to rectifying some of the abuses that occurred on President Bush's watch.
The House Committee on Homeland Security Wednesday convened a daylong series of discussions among privacy, civil liberties and national security experts exchanging ideas to improve the nation's efforts to combat terrorism while protecting Americans' constitutional rights.
At a midmorning panel examining the increased collection and sharing of information on Americans, experts recommended refocusing the efforts of the law enforcement and intelligence communities to avoid ineffective, time-wasting reliance on massive data collection.
"If you want bloated government, then continue to investigate law abiding citizens to find the terrorist in the haystack," said Laura Murphy, one of the panelists.
Michael German, a former FBI agent now with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government is too eager to rely on new technologies to collect and analyze massive amounts of information, rather than old-fashioned techniques that have proven most effective.
"It's regular police work that gets results," he said.
Among the problems highlighted during the morning panel were fusion centers that encourage state and local police to collect information on Americans and share it with federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, increasing reliance on government and privately owned databases for data-mining, and an overall shift away from emphasizing the importance of protecting innocent Americans' privacy in pursuing national security policies.
Panelists advanced several recommendations for Congress and the next administration, primarily a refocusing on ensuring enforcement of the Privacy Act and mandating strict privacy safeguards in post-9/11 programs like the Information Sharing Environment.
Kate Martin, who directs the Center for National Security Studies, said Congress needs to launch a wholesale investigation of the government's domestic intelligence gathering and surveillance activities. Such a review should not simply focus on hot-button topics like the Patriot Act or the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping but the complete picture of authority granted to collect, share and use information about Americans.
There have been numerous documented instances of law enforcement resources being used improperly to target innocent individuals, such as the Maryland State Police investigation of peace activists. German said that law enforcement agencies should not receive a free pass when they are found to have participated in such activities.
"Demanding accountability from national security and law enforcement agencies is essential to our ensuring security," he said. "Investigating and collecting information on innocent people won’t help them stop guilty people."
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