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Bush makes last-minute grab for civil liberties

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US citizens could be investigated without just cause under a new plan from the Justice Department, while those who choose to leave the country will have their records kept for 15 years and available to any litigious attorney.

The Justice Department plan won't be unveiled in detail until next month, but the New York Times is reporting that the plan will to allow the FBI to open an investigation into anyone without clear suspicion, and that's got civil liberty groups understandably concerned.

Meanwhile the Department of Homeland Security has been quietly building a database of every border crossing by a US citizen, claims the Washington Post, and intends to hang onto the data for 15 years - foreigners will have their data stored for 75 years. All this information sits in a database which will be exempted from the 1974 Privacy Act, which would require individuals to be informed if lawmen request the data.

Both these moves are about solidifying temporary powers that were put into place following the terrorist attack in New York in September 2001, and doing so before Bush leaves office and is replaced by someone who may be less hard-line.

Details of the Justice Department plan were revealed in closed briefings to Congressional staff, and four Democratic senators have written to the Attorney General expressing their concern. The letter, signed by Russ Feingold, Richard J. Durbin, Edward M. Kennedy and Sheldon Whitehouse, claims the new plan "might permit an innocent American to be subjected to such intrusive surveillance based in part on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or on protected First Amendment activities".

As a result the Attorney has agreed not to sign the plan before Congress gets a proper look at it on September 17th.

The border-crossing database being created in the name of Homeland Security came to light last month in a Federal Register notice, and is intended to form a record which can "quite literally, help frontline officers to connect the dots", according to a Homeland Security spokesman.

But it won't just be terrorists who are tracked on the database. The information will be available to any court or attorney in civil litigation, or even the media: "When there exists a legitimate public interest in the disclosure of the information."

As a fully paid up member of the fourth estate The Register is looking forward to having access to US border crossing records, but we promise to only use the information in legitimate cases, so if you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear from us. ®

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