UB Professor, Constitutional Law Expert Predicts Threat to Privacy, Civil Rights of Some Americans

Release Date: September 17, 2001 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Just as they did during the era of McCarthyism and the post-Pearl Harbor period, Americans can probably expect to see calls for measures that may seriously erode the constitutional rights of American citizens, said Lee Albert, professor of law at the University at Buffalo and a specialist in constitutional issues.

"There is no question," added Albert, "that a society under attack will place more resources into security than privacy."

Albert added that most of the measures being proposed for stricter airport security will be welcomed and generally do not pose a threat to privacy interests.

However, he said, some of the most promising methods of thwarting attacks from terrorists -- infiltration of groups and organizations in search of information -- potentially poses a significant threat to privacy interests and constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.

Albert noted that the kinds of justifications that were made for infiltrating groups during the McCarthy era can be made now, too.

"Why did we infiltrate groups during the McCarthy era? Because we were security-minded and we were scared. People really believed there was a fifth column and that justified the work of the FBI and the CIA. We could have something like that again. Only this security threat is not just in the mind of a mad senator."

According to Albert, if it turns out that Muslim extremist groups operating in the U.S. were responsible for the attacks, there will certainly be infiltration of groups and organizations in which this country's millions of Muslims are members.

"Many Muslim groups, most of which are perfectly legitimate groups, will be infiltrated," he predicts. "That's a considerable privacy cost. But as you can imagine, there won't be a great

deal of sympathy for those groups because the attitude will be, 'Well that's the price we have to pay." The misperception is, it's not really 'we' who will be paying that price."

He noted that one of the most infamous decisions that resulted in one of the most serious breaches of constitutional rights for American citizens was in Koramatsu v. U.S. in 1944, in which the Supreme Court allowed the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans into "relocation centers" on the order of a military official.

"Judges are never at their best during wartime," Albert added. "This is not war but these are not peacetime conditions either. The immediate after effect is that judges will certainly err on the side of more security."

"I wouldn't plan on a period of judges standing up to the onslaught of measures that seem to whittle away at privacy interests," he said.

"One reason why security justifications are made so successfully is that it's awfully hard for people in the general public or even lawyers and judges to second-guess the experts. We know nothing about the security apparatus, so that when they tell us we'll be better off, we believe them."

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