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Walls of 'Fortress America' rising

Congress is moving on tough bills that would expand surveillance and tighten security at airports and borders.

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Washington is on the verge of enacting - quickly - the most sweeping changes in law enforcement in a generation. Aimed at thwarting terrorists, they also will touch the lives of almost every American.

A draft wish list from the Bush administration now circulating in Congress asks for broad new powers to eavesdrop, control borders, and collect and share information about citizens, students, and visitors to the United States.

At first glance, it looks as if most of the changes apply just to suspected terrorists or those who support them. But experts say the impact could be much broader.

"People always think such new laws won't apply to them, but it's tough if you get caught up in the dragnet," says Christopher Sands, director of the Canada Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

The impact of new laws and regulations will be most obvious to people traveling or crossing borders. Passengers will find more metal detectors, cameras, and checkpoints at airports. This means Americans can expect fewer flights and more delays, indefinitely.

Along the US-Canada border, where 200 million people cross each year, the wait at checkpoints will also lengthen dramatically. Concern about the number of Islamic extremists entering the US from north of the border has already forced authorities to tighten security.

Now the screening is set to get even more stringent, threatening to create gridlock.

What will be less obvious in its impact - but no less far reaching - are congressional moves to allow the government to accumulate more information about the movements, beliefs, and financial transactions of its citizens. This includes giving authorities more power to detain and prosecute people.

"We need these tools to fight the terrorist threat which exists in the United States," said Attorney General John Ashcroft last week.

Terrorist experts say there are tough tradeoffs involved in many of these new provisions. For example, the use of cameras with face recognition software around airports and public places can help track terrorists. Yet it also gives government the capacity to track all citizens.


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