Kathleen Parker

By now most Americans have heard of the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, both of which have the reassuring ring of a Department of Human Resources.

In my experience, there's not much human about human-resource departments, and zillion-page legal documents detailing ways to enforce patriotism and secure the homeland sound like instruments that might guarantee the opposite effect.

If securing the homeland means undermining freedom, as both documents have the potential to do, then what's to secure against whom? And what's to feel patriotic about a country that surveils reporters and blocks public access to information?

While we were busy trying to determine whether Scott Peterson killed his pregnant wife -desperate to get back to normal, I guess -we napped through some bracing legislation that potentially threatens our most precious resource: a free press.

Not everyone was napping, of course. First Amendment watchdog groups, as well as some legislators and journalists, have been paying close attention. But I'm probably safe in guessing that most Americans don't know -or care -much about how these new government vehicles affect their access to information or what it means.

Therein may lie our biggest problem as we try to balance national security with freedom -not the government's cudgel approach to fighting terrorism but a complacent populace failing to notice in part because the media fail to tell them.

Here's an example of what's happened. The Homeland Security Act contains an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for companies that voluntarily provide "critical" infrastructure information to the Department of Homeland Security.

The idea seems sound on the surface. Homeland Security is trying to assess how companies might be vulnerable to terrorist attack and help seek appropriate remedies. But the promise of immunity from Freedom of Information inquiries potentially could also provide immunity from civil liability if the information reveals problems or wrongdoing.

Of course, such a risk presumes that Homeland Security willingly would be complicit in a company's wrongdoing, which seems unlikely. Surely the war on terrorism provides enough headaches without Uncle Sam helping creepy corporations behave badly. On the other hand, "corporate creepiness" and "government corruption" have been known to share an entrée.

Meanwhile, the USA Patriot Act -a handy doorstop at 157 printed pages -contains several provisions that make reporters and newsrooms possible targets for government surveillance. Quick reminder: A free press means free from government control or interference.

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
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