New powers, new obligations

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it has been heartening to see individuals on opposite sides of issues put aside their differences to work together on a response and to protect America from future attacks.

Privacy advocates have especially shown a spirit of cooperation. They understand that the horrific footage of the Pentagon burning and the World Trade Center buildings collapsing has caused Americans to consider giving up some privacy for a heightened sense of secu.rity. As one privacy advocate told Federal Computer Week, when it comes to the FBI's use of e-mail snooping technology, "We'll look the other way. "

Most Americans and government officials agree that in these extraordinary times, in which no one feels safe from an attack, the prudent course of action is to give law enforcement agencies more leeway in finding suspects. If individual privacy is compromised in ways that lead to the capture of those who planned and helped carry out the attacks, the majority of Americans would not complain.

But the FBI and other law enforcement agencies should not interpret Americans' privacy concessions as carte blanche. Privacy experts have made the valid point that those who masterminded the Sept. 11 attacks could claim a victory if Americans give up protections that are at the heart of this nation's founding principles.

Law enforcement agencies would do well to understand that they have a responsibility here, too. They should not abuse their expanded powers and should certainly not misunderstand their critics' silence as weakness. They must go beyond assuring the public that they will keep Americans' concerns in mind as they electronically search for evidence. Agencies should also keep an open dialogue with civil liberties and civil rights groups.

The benefits of the free flow of information, unfettered by the intrusion of government, should not be discounted as law enforcement agencies undertake the deadly serious task of finding the perpetrators of the attacks. To do so endangers our ability to create a better life.

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