Partisan tensions rose to the surface at the close of a Wednesday hearing before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Privacy. While the stated purpose of the hearing was to investigate "laptop searches and other violations of privacy faced by Americans returning from overseas travel," subcommittee chairman Sen. Russ Feingold -- a longtime critic of what he described as the Bush administration's "reckless regard" for privacy rights -- used his closing remarks to put the hearing in a broader context.
Too broad a context, it turned out, for the Republican ranking member on the subcommittee. At some point during Feingold's closing statement, during which he raised the specter of a "surveillance state," Sen. Sam Brownback decided he'd heard enough. Just before Feingold prepared to end the hearing, the Kansas Republican asked to add a few words to the record, and then accused Feingold of "hyperbole" in describing the Bush administration.
"I think you're stretching on this [the administration] trying to search everyone," Brownback said. "Nobody wants to stand for a surveillance state," adding that he was interested in finding "a practical basis for protecting these constitutional rights" in balance with the nation's security concerns.
With the panelists sitting silently before the two politely jousting Senators, Feingold took Brownback up on the improvised dialogue, no longer reading from his prepared statement when he said: "I wish that what I said about the Bush administration was extreme. ... It is not. ... The historical record is clear. The administration has been reckless with regard to the privacy [rights] of the American people."
Then, after noting that such a debate was not the purpose of the hearing, Feingold shut down the proceedings.
Save for that contentious close, the hearing itself had proved a substantive examination of the phenomenon of suspicion-free searches that some travelers have faced when re-entering the country. While the legal scholars on the subcommittee's panel debated the extent to which search of a laptop was any different from search of a briefcase, the president and executive director of the non-profit advocacy group Muslim Advocates said the problem of Homeland Security and Customs searches goes past the question of technology.
"We're not talking about the inconveniences we all face at the airport; what we are bringing to light today before Congress is the use of excessive and coercive interrogation tactics that cause concern for all Americans and people of faith, not just members of the Muslim, Arab and South Asian American communities," Farhana Khera said.
Jawad Khaki, an executive vice president with a Seattle-based software company, was one of the citizens whose stories Khera cited in her testimony. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Khaki also revealed that in addition to being singled out for secondary screening eight times in the last two years, he feels he was asked inappropriate questions that had nothing to do with security.
"This is not like taking off your shoes," he said. "It is about your family members: what is their birthday, what street are they living on? This is being asked about how often I pray, what my political views are. It has nothing to do with safety and security, and everything to do with what kind of society we are."
At bottom, though, Khaki said he was not averse to finding the same balance that Brownback described between privacy concerns and security requirements needed to protect the country that he says has been good to him. "I don't mind inconvenience as a small price to pay for safety and security," he said. But noting that even though he has sent repeated letters to Homeland Security officials, volunteering both to sit down for an interview and to provide financial records so that his name can be cleared, he says he's only received boilerplate responses in return.
"We should be concerned about the efficiency of government, too, regarding the money wasted on me to have me searched [and interviewed] time after time just to find nothing."