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Security act to pervade daily lives

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When you board a plane in the next year, your pilot may be armed. Make a call from a pay phone at the ballpark, and it may be tapped. Pay for a sandwich with a credit card, and the transaction may wind up in an electronic file with your tax returns, travel history, and speeding tickets.

These are some of the ways that the biggest reorganization of the federal government in half a century could trickle down into the minutiae of the daily life of Americans.

The Homeland Security Act that President Bush is poised to sign is sweeping in scope and will have big consequences, intended and unintended, on everything from civil liberties of Americans to due process for immigrants.

Some have little to do with homeland security, but emerged out of the intensive, last-minute bargaining that shaped this effort to refocus the nation's resources to defeat terrorism. As votes on the historic bill wrapped up this week, most lawmakers were still rifling through its 484 pages to find out what's there.

"The statute is elephantine," says Allen Weinstein, president of the Center for Democracy in Washington. "It means we're probably going to have to deal with a law of unintended consequences."

While debate in Congress focused on bargaining rights of federal workers and the fate of mammoth agencies, many features of this bill reach deep into the fabric of American life.

Among the implications:

• New authority for agencies to collect and mine data on individuals and groups, including databases that combine personal, governmental, and corporate records - including e-mails and websites viewed.

• Limits on the information citizens can request under the Freedom of Information Act, and criminal penalties for government employees who leak information. This was a top priority for business groups, who worry that disclosing critical information to the new department could expose corporate secrets or vulnerabilities to competitors or terrorists. "Companies feel they need this, because without it they will be less willing to share this information," says Joe Rubin, director of congressional affairs for the US Chamber of Commerce.

• More latitude for government advisory committees to meet in secret - not subject to the requirements of the open meeting laws. If Dick Cheney's controversial meetings with energy companies in 2001 were held under the bill's provisions, they could be kept secret if deemed to be "national-security related."


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