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No secret watch lists!

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security placed a notice in the Federal Register outlining a plan to expand the department's uses of the personal information it has collected about foreign travelers entering and departing the United States. In a separate notice, the department also outlined plans to exempt this information from the Freedom of Information Act, effectively making it top-secret. Charlie Leocha thinks it may be time to call your congressman.
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In its effort to stop terrorism, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has promulgated numerous rules that affect citizens and foreign nationals as they go about their everyday lives. As travelers, we generally come face to face with these rules only when we take off our shoes, pack our liquids in baggies and stand endlessly in airport security lines.

But there is far more going on than what you see at the airport, and what we don't see may be far more important — and more worrying. In fact, Big Brother has cast its net wider and wider in its effort to collect personal data — biographical information, biometrical data and "encounter" data — on suspected terrorists and other "subjects of interest."

Those of us with U.S. passports might wonder why the line for "Non-U.S. Citizens" is so long and slow at our international airports. They may be comforted to learn that our government is now collecting more information about those arriving in our country by air, including fingerprinting each and every one of them. This information, plus data submitted prior to take-off overseas, is collected, collated and warehoused in a high-tech computer database known as the Arrival and Departure Information System (ADIS).

Now Homeland Security is planning much wider dissemination of that collected personal information than ever before. Last week, the department inserted the following notice regarding information sharing into the Federal Register, and it is flat-out scary.

Information ... may be shared with other DHS components, as well as appropriate Federal, state, local, tribal, foreign, or international government agencies. Internal and external agencies (including intelligence agencies) will have access to the full range of ADIS data once they have established that they will use the information for a purpose which is compatible with the purpose of the original collection. (Fed. Reg., vol. 72, no. 162, Aug. 22, 2007)

The notice goes on to specify that the proposed rulemaking will include sharing and receiving information from foreign governments and that the "retention period" will be reduced from 100 to 75 years.

Far more troubling to me is a simultaneous notice to exempt this information from certain provisions of the Freedom of Information Act — "because of criminal, civil, and administrative enforcement requirements."

In other words, if U.S. citizens find themselves harassed at border crossings for no apparent reason, they will be unable to learn whether information stored in the ADIS system might be the cause of their problems — much less whether that information was gathered by our government or received from foreign "intelligence agencies."

This is the more frightening of the two notices posted last week. DHS is in fact proposing a secret database of unrestricted personal information closed to the prying eyes of the public — a system just like those employed by the Soviet KGB, the Nazi Gestapo and the East German Stasi. This is a development that all Americans should abhor.

I know that these provisions are theoretically directed only at foreigners, but if citizens cannot find out whether their name and personal information is included on these lists because the information is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, how will anyone ever know? And what about those immigrants who become citizens within the 75-year span of the information-retention rule? According to these rulemaking notices, the newly minted U.S. citizen's information will remain in this secret database.

Hold on a minute. What if your personal information gets lumped in with that of some foreign nationals (who, in most cases, are innocent, upstanding citizens of their countries and are suspected of nothing — a whole other issue)? What if there is a data-entry mistake? What if your name matches someone else's? What if someone in DHS simply has a grudge against you? You will find yourself with no place to turn for the next 75 years because the Freedom of Information Act suddenly doesn't apply.

Collecting and sharing information to enforce our immigration laws, secure our borders and protect us from terrorist attacks is justifiable and the proper role of the federal government. However, hiding that information and restricting U.S. citizens' access to it is something that we expect to read about in an Orwell novel, not the Federal Register!

This is starting to sound very un-American to me, and we need to stop it.

It might be time to call your congressman or senator.

These new Homeland Security rules are not yet the law of the land. The Federal Register is alerting us only to the impending implementation of these new rules and to the government plan to slam the door shut on anyone asking, "Why am I on this list?"

The best action is to contact your congressman or senator and let them know you are concerned. They pay attention to constituents and they have far more clout with DHS than the common citizen.

Citizen comments on these new rules and regulations must be received on or before September 21, 2007.

Your comments must reference the Department of Homeland Security along with one of these docket numbers: Docket Number DHS-2007-0049 (increased data sharing) or Docket Number DHS-2007-0050 (exemption of ADIS from the Freedom of Information Act). Click here for access to the dockets, and to read background documents or comments received.

Comments can be submitted by any of the following methods. Note that all comments received will be posted without change to, including any personal information provided.

1. Federal e-Rulemaking Portal: Follow the instructions for submitting comments.

2. Fax: 1-866-466-5370.

3. Mail: Address correspondence to Hugo Teufel III, Chief Privacy Officer, Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C. 20528.

4. For further information, contact: Claire Miller, Acting US-VISIT Privacy Officer, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C. 20538, by telephone at (202) 298-5200 or by facsimile at (202) 298-5201. For privacy issues, please contact: Hugo Teufel III, Chief Privacy Officer, Privacy Office, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Washington, D.C. 20528; telephone (703) 235-0780.