When Right and Left See Eye-to-Eye

An unlikely coalition of privacy defenders emerges

On Capitol Hill, it would be tough to find two more unlikely allies than Representatives Bob Barr of Georgia and Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Barr, a pro-gun conservative Republican, led the impeachment charge against President Clinton and sponsored legislation that lets states refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. Frank, a liberal Democrat and acknowledged homosexual, defended Clinton with pit-bull intensity. But in the recent debate over the Bush Administration's anti-terrorism bill, Barr and Frank have stood together against the proposal. The reason: Both fear that the Bush bill could trample people's privacy by giving police more power to wiretap and spy on e-mail. "On these issues, we see eye-to-eye," says Barr.

So it goes in the strange-bedfellows privacy coalition that has given the anti-terrorism bill a far rougher ride than most Washington hands initially expected. And Barr and Frank aren't the only traditional foes singing the same tune. The post-September 11 privacy-protection coalition has been led by a broad spectrum of interest groups--ranging from Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum and the Free Congress Foundation on the right to the American Civil Liberties Union on the left.

NO WAY. This diverse coalition has had modest success fighting the new measure. The Administration originally wanted the authority to detain foreign suspects indefinitely without pressing charges. No way, said Barr & Co. They were able to limit it to seven days. They also won a four-year sunset provision on the sweeping new surveillance powers.

Given the enormous public pressure to act quickly to fight terrorism, it's not surprising that the privacy coalition failed to blunt most of the other expanded police powers in the bill. But civil liberties-minded lawmakers and interest groups aren't giving up the larger fight against overly intrusive government surveillance. They vow to seek curbs on law-enforcement agencies' existing abilities to collect and mine databases, plant cameras in public places, and use facial-recognition and other biometric systems to sniff out terrorists. "We will stay on the job," declares Schlafly. "We are very much against the government monitoring activities of law-abiding Americans, whether it's computers or video cameras or e-mail."

Indeed, the prospect of cameras popping up on street corners and widespread use of facial-recognition systems gives privacy advocates of every stripe the willies. "We shouldn't roll these technologies out without carefully thinking through what the ground rules are," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a leading civil liberties group. Using cameras for security checks of employees at government facilities is one thing, says J. Bradley Jansen, a deputy director at the Free Congress Foundation. "But cameras in public places are a gross violation of privacy without due cause."

"MUTUAL RESPECT." In fighting all these new tracking techniques, this diverse union of conservatives and liberals has stitched together a durable alliance. Conservatives, who distrust big government, and liberals, suspicious of government's power to stifle dissent, have joined forces repeatedly since the mid-1990s to protect privacy. They forced revisions in a 1996 anti-terrorism bill and thwarted police efforts to obtain a built-in backdoor to encryption software. "There is a great deal of mutual respect between the two wings of the coalition and mutual appreciation of the expertise of the two sides," says James X. Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

Alliance politics get complicated, though, when the focus is corporate snooping. Among interest groups, there's a right-left divide on the need for commercial privacy curbs. Conservative groups, fearing government's heavy hand on business as well as on individuals, dismiss the need for federal online privacy rules. "Everyone on the right understands that because the government is a monopoly, there should be strong limits," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. "But it does not keep me up at night if I buy something from L.L. Bean and L.L. Bean sends me an e-mail about new pants I didn't ask for."

Traditional civil liberties groups, however, as well as many lawmakers, are still set to fight corporate snoops. "We need to stop the scoundrels who would make a business of your personal information," says Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), who is working on Internet privacy legislation.

Times have changed, of course, and the fight against terrorism has pushed debate about commercial privacy to the back burner. For the next few months, the unlikely team of Barr & Frank will have its hands full defending privacy in a Capitol--and a country--grappling with fear.

By Amy Borrus in Washington

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