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Fortress America

(Page 7 of 10)

In years past, the U.S. has had to rely on other governments to take these risks. For example, the mastermind of the 1993 W.T.C. bombing, Ramzi Yousef, was caught only after Philippine investigators used what official intelligence documents delicately refer to as ''tactical interrogation'' to elicit a confession from an accomplice arrested in Manila. In U.S. court testimony, the accomplice, Abdul Hakim Murad, later testified that he was beaten to within an inch of his life.


In Israel, it is touted that 90 percent of suicide bombers are caught before they get near their targets, a record achieved partly because the Shin Bet can do almost anything it deems necessary to save lives. ''They do things we would not be comfortable with in this country,'' says former Assistant F.B.I. Director Steve Pomerantz, who, along with a growing number of U.S. officials, has traveled to Israel recently for antiterror training seminars.

But the U.S. is moving in the Israeli direction. The U.S.A. Patriot Act, rushed into law six weeks after 9/11, has given government agencies wide latitude to invoke the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and get around judicial restraints on search, seizure and surveillance of American citizens. FISA, originally intended to hunt international spies, permits the authorities to wiretap virtually at will and break into people's homes to plant bugs or copy documents. Last year, surveillance requests by the federal government under FISA outnumbered for the first time in U.S. history all of those under domestic law.

New legislative proposals by the Justice Department now seek to take the Patriot Act's antiterror powers several steps further, including the right to strip terror suspects of their U.S. citizenship. Under the new bill -- titled the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 -- the government would not be required to disclose the identity of anyone detained in connection with a terror investigation, and the names of those arrested, be they Americans or foreign nationals, would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a rights group in Washington, which has obtained a draft of the bill. An American citizen suspected of being part of a terrorist conspiracy could be held by investigators without anyone being notified. He could simply disappear.

The Face-to-Face Interrogation on Your Vacation

Some aspects of life would, in superficial ways, seem easier, depending on who you are and what sort of specialized ID you carry. Boarding an international flight, for example, might not require a passport for frequent fliers. At Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, ''trusted'' travelers -- those who have submitted to background checks -- are issued a smart card encoded with the pattern of their iris. When they want to pass through security, a scanner checks their eyes and verifies their identities, and they are off. The whole process takes 20 seconds, according to Dutch officials. At Ben-Gurion in Israel, the same basic function is carried out by electronic palm readers.

''We start building dossiers the moment someone buys a ticket,'' says Einav, the Shin Bet veteran who also once served as head of El Al security. ''We have quite a bit of information on our frequent fliers. So we know they are not a security risk.''

The technology frees up security personnel to focus their efforts on everybody else, who, on my recent trip to Jerusalem, included me. As a holder of a Canadian passport (a favorite of forgers) that has visa stamps from a number of high-risk countries ending in ''stan,'' I was subjected to a 40-minute interrogation. My clothes and belongings were swabbed for explosives residue. Taken to a separate room, I was questioned about every detail of my stay in Israel, often twice to make certain my story stayed consistent. Whom did you meet? Where did you meet? What was the address? Do you have the business cards of the people you met? Can we see them? What did you discuss? Can we see your notes? Do you have any maps with you? Did you take any photographs while you were in Israel? Are you sure? Did you rent a car? Where did you drive to? Do you have a copy of your hotel bill? Why do you have a visa to Pakistan? Why do you live in Washington? Can we see your D.C. driver's license? Where did you live before Washington? Why did you live in Moscow? Are you always this nervous?

A Russian speaker was produced to verify that I spoke the language. By the time I was finally cleared, I almost missed my flight. ''Sorry for the delay,'' apologized the young security officer. ''Don't take it personally.''

El Al is a tiny airline that has a fleet of just 30 planes and flies to a small handful of destinations. It is also heavily subsidized by the government. This is what has made El Al and Ben-Gurion safe from terrorists for more than 30 years.

<<Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | Next>>

THREATS AND RESPONSES: ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE; Congress Agrees to Bar Pentagon From Terror Watch of Americans  (February 12, 2003)  $

Compressed Data; Electronic Surveillance Spies a Perfect Gift  (February 10, 2003)  $

Metro Briefing | New York: Manhattan: City Must Release Rescue Tapes  (February 6, 2003) 

THREATS AND RESPONSES: THE BIOTERROR THREAT; Health Data Monitored for Bioterror Warning  (January 27, 2003)  $

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