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WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today urged Congress and the Administration to build in structural safeguards to prevent violations of civil liberties by the proposed cabinet-level homeland security agency. 

"If it consolidates government power, Congress must also create robust safeguards against government abuse," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington National Office. "Such safeguards, like an Office of Inspector General, for example, are crucial given the potential scope of this new homeland security apparatus, which would reach into every nook and cranny of our lives and liberty." 

In a national address last night, President Bush said that his Administration would push vigorously for congressional authorization of a cabinet-level post for homeland security under which he would consolidate, among others, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service into one mammoth federal agency. The proposed agency would dwarf most of the other cabinet departments, coming in at a close third in size behind the Pentagon and the Veterans' Affairs Administration. 

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said that in considering the Bush Administration plans, Congress must also not lose sight of the information it gleaned from yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings about the performance of the FBI. 

"As Agent Coleen Rowley so courageously noted," Romero said, "the FBI's inability to properly analyze the relevant data it had was a result of a breakdown in communications, not a lack of law enforcement powers." 

In pushing for safeguards for civil liberties, the ACLU pointed to similar self-policing units elsewhere in the cabinet agencies. The Department of Justice has an Office of Professional Responsibility for both the department at large and for the FBI specifically, as well as an Inspector General. In fact, under the USA PATRIOT Act the Justice Department was mandated to appoint another official under the Inspector General to review information and collect complaints about civil liberties and civil rights abuses by the department. 

"Any consolidation of power in the government brings with it inherent risks," Murphy said. "When J. Edgar Hoover ruled the FBI as his own private fiefdom, abuses of civil liberties were rampant, notably against the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

"Congress must make sure the new agency is created with the necessary and appropriate checks and balances," Murphy said.

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