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Civil libertarians hash out post-Sept. 11 concerns

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Newsgathering         Nov 29, 2001    

Civil libertarians hash out post-Sept. 11 concerns

  • Two days after reporters accompanied group troops in Afghanistan, the Constitution Project’s Initiative on Liberty and Security committee considers civil liberties and the First Amendment after terrorist attacks.

A gathering of civil libertarians and First Amendment advocates at the National Press Club this morning may have crossed party lines, but they agreed on at least one thing: the U.S. government’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have sparked concerns about eroding liberties.

“In crisis, it’s always likely to raise the question of how important life and liberties are,” said John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. “Liberties are never safe and secure. They are always in the process of being made safe and secure.”

In particular, the swift passage of the PATRIOT Act and the executive order for military tribunals issued by President Bush caused worry. In response, the Constitution Project formed the Initiative on Liberty and Security to study the effect on civil liberties and make recommendations to both lawmakers and the public on how to preserve them.

The committee held a press conference and a panel discussion today to start its discussion about the First Amendment, military tribunals and press coverage of the war on terrorism.

The meeting came only two days after reporters from the Associated Press, Reuters, and the Gannett newspaper chain became the first to accompany U.S. troops in the war in Afghanistan. The reporters followed a Marine unit to a military airstrip in Southern Afghanistan under the condition they would not specify their location or divulge plans for future military action.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said he wanted to be a part of this committee because “we need to fight (the war on terrorism) effectively without giving up what we are fighting for.”

The committee said the military tribunals might raise problems because they lack congressional oversight.

But Maj. Gen. William Nash, senior fellow and director of the Center for Preventive Action, said that while he did not advocate tribunals, he understood the need for secrecy.

“The information needed to convict terrorists may be valuable to the enemy. It would be an advantage to the enemy if they knew, what we know,” Nash said.

Committee members also discussed the media’s involvement in the war.

Both Seigenthaler and John Podesta, White House chief of staff under former President Clinton and now a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center, both said the news media has provided a good deal of coverage during the war. Some panelists suggested that a lack of coverage and probing from the media accounts for the public favoring governmental action.

“We have to realize we are carrying out this war in the name of the American people,” Podesta said. “The American people have a right to know what’s being carried out in their name.”


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