Power plays

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2002, 12:00am

When Hong Kong's Solicitor-General Robert Allcock landed in Washington this week, he may have detected an undercurrent of concern about the loss of much-cherished personal freedoms.

It would have had nothing to do with Article 23 of the Basic Law, the reason for his lobbying trip to the US capital.

The expansion of the powers of the US government over individual citizens appears to be continuing apace under the war on terrorism; only recently, however, has that been accompanied by robust public debate.

This week, US President George W. Bush won approval from Congress for his proposal to create the Department of Homeland Security. The bureaucratic behemoth will bring under one roof a host of domestic agencies involved in security, including the US Customs, Immigration and Naturalisation and Secret Services. It will have an extensive brief to better analyse domestic security threats

Some of that intelligence could in theory be generated from a huge electronic vacuum cleaner now being created by Pentagon strategists, a radically new database that the government will use to monitor key transactions made by every American.

Cash withdrawals, purchases of prescription drugs, train and air tickets, and car rentals will be scrutinised to spot suspicious activity by suspected terrorists.

As Orwellian as it might sound, it is unfortunately hardly unexpected given the Bush administration's performance since September 11. With the backing of a suddenly compliant Congress, domestic and foreign spies' powers have been increased. A new generation of immigrants has learnt to fear the midnight knock at the door following the introduction of secret detention and deportations. Then there is the prospect of indefinite detention without judicial review for anyone - including a US citizen - declared an 'enemy combatant'.

Mr Allcock apparently faced only political, and not legal, questions from senior White House and State Department officials as he sought to defend Hong Kong's proposals.

Some may question whether he was preaching to the converted. America's own civil liberties are, after all, under greater threat than for a generation.