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America wrestles with privacy vs. security

From driver's licenses to domestic spying, recent debates test public values amid terror war.

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The recent attacks in London by home-grown terrorists have intensified attention on homeland security in the US. And that in turn has raised new questions about protecting civil liberties and privacy during a new kind of war that knows no national borders.

There's no doubt that Americans are concerned about both.

A poll this week finds that 86 percent of those surveyed believe it's likely that another major terrorist attack will occur in this country, with nearly half saying such an attack is "very likely."

Americans clearly favor stronger measures to protect US borders and facilities like chemical and nuclear plants, according to the survey conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. Most people also favor renewing the USA Patriot Act, according to the poll. This controversial law, passed just after the attacks of September 11, gives law enforcement agencies more powers to identify and detain suspected terrorists. Many of its key provisions are due to expire this year, and there's an effort in Congress to extend those provisions or make them permanent.

But there are also a cluster of legal and political threads that - woven together - could act as a restraint on efforts to strengthen domestic security at a time of increased terrorist threats. Among them:

• The case of Brandon Mayfield in Portland, Ore. He's the young American lawyer, a convert to Islam and the husband of an Egyptian woman, who was erroneously linked to the 2004 Madrid bombings that killed 191 people. Although the federal government officially apologized, Mr. Mayfield is suing to find out what information federal agents had gathered on him. In a case in federal court now underway, he contends that FBI wiretaps and secret searches of his home, not to mention locking him up for two weeks - all conducted under the Patriot Act - are unconstitutional.


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