Congress looks to triple state’s border security

Jessica Thompson

Anti-terrorist legislation in the final stages of congressional approval is drawing criticism from civil liberties groups and some House Democrats.

The Senate voted 96-1 Thursday to pass the USA Act of 2001 which would, among other things, triple security at Minnesota’s northern border. The House voted Friday, 337-79, to pass the similar Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001.

Among the bills’ biggest proponents is Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who added a $100 million provision to improve technology such as surveillance cameras and electronic sensors on the northern border.

“The northern border has become uniquely vulnerable to international terrorists using Canada as a staging ground for planned operations on our soil,” Wellstone said. “With the increased threats to our country comes the need for more border security.”

There are currently approximately 90 Immigration and Naturalization Service, border patrol and customs agents at Minnesota’s northern border.

Of the roughly 1,100 border patrol agents nationwide, only 350 are located on the northern border.

Joan Sebenaler, assistant port director at Pembina, N.D., said border agents in Minnesota have been working 12- to 16-hour days since the Sept. 11 attacks.

“All of our instructors and people that are working at the ports of entry have a very heightened awareness – we’re on alert level one,” Sebenaler said. “When you start having tired employees, you may have more tendency for errors.”

The anti-terrorist bills’ largest foes – including the American Civil Liberties Union – say the legislation opens the door for unwarranted searches and wiretaps, and compromises Fourth Amendment rights.

“There is concern that it goes too far and may infringe on civil liberties beyond the point that is necessary to fight terrorism,” said Mary Kerr, press secretary for Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn.

The bill allows government agencies conducting criminal investigations to enter private places and conduct physical searches without previously warning the party.

Law enforcement agencies would have the right to access, use and disseminate personal information about students. The legislation also permits information-sharing among the CIA, National Security Agency, INS, Secret Service and military.

Critics say the bills’ definition of domestic terrorism could allow the government to levy heavy penalties for minor offenses such as political protests.

Also under fire are provisions expanding wiretap authority and allowing for indefinite detentions of immigrants.

Oberstar and Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Martin Sabo were the only three members of the Minnesota delegation to vote against the bill. Allison Myhre, Peterson’s press secretary, said Peterson opposed the bill mainly because it did not include relief for small airlines.

Representatives for Sabo said the congressman worries the legislation would threaten civil liberties.

Sabo is also concerned the House strayed from the normal legislative process in its passage of the bill.

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved anti-terrorism legislation Oct. 3, but Republican leadership presented a new version at the Oct. 12 vote. The vote was closed to new amendments.

Kerr said representatives were given little time to review the revised legislation before voting.

The House and Senate are expected to quickly adopt a final version of anti-terrorist legislation, which they will present to the president for his signature.