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WASHINGTON - Privacy has sunk to a low priority for the Bush administration.
From warrantless domestic surveillance to the pursuit of records from online search engines, the administration's actions have privacy advocates across the political spectrum wailing. They accuse the government of snooping on a wide range of Americans' activities, including international telephone calls, e-mails, airline flights and library usage.
Privacy will be center-stage in Washington in the coming weeks. Congress faces a Friday deadline to extend the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act, such as allowing investigators to secretly search people's homes. And Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a leading skeptic of the legality of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance, has summoned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to a Feb. 6 hearing on the program.
Many of the administration's intrusions on privacy relate to the war on terror - from the searches and surveillance allowed by the Patriot Act to the Pentagon's Counter Intelligence Field Activity office, which reportedly has monitored anti-war protests at the University of California-Santa Cruz and elsewhere.
But some of the administration's actions raising privacy fears have no terrorism connections. The Justice Department went to court recently to force Google to turn over search databases in an effort to restrict children's access to Internet pornography. Earlier, it had sought hospital abortion records in 2004 in its attempt to defend a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion.
The Bush administration has ''articulated few or no limits on the government's ability to get information about Americans,'' said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who served as the Clinton administration's privacy czar.
President Bush has no privacy czar to advocate in policy discussions. A privacy and civil liberties oversight board recommended in 2004 by the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks still isn't up and running. And the Bush administration has asserted a far-reaching view of presidential authority that has alarmed some conservatives as well as liberals because it conflicts with their philosophy of limited federal power.
''You want as small and limited a government as possible and I think some of the powers they're asking for are beyond what's necessary and beyond what's safe,'' said Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, who is close to the Bush White House.
Bush and top administration officials strongly defended the domestic surveillance program last week.
''I can tell the American people the program's legal, it's designed to protect civil liberties, and it's necessary,'' Bush said Thursday.
Bush and other top administration officials have said the program targets only people with ties to al-Qaida and the privacy of average Americans is respected.
Privacy concerns have heightened because of the proliferation of electronic communications - from e-mail to cell phones - and advances in surveillance technology, particularly by the NSA.
''Today, the NSA is the largest intelligence agency on Earth, and by far the most dangerous if not subjected to strict laws and oversight,'' James Bamford, author of two books on the agency, told a Democratic hearing this month. ''It can read a person's most private thoughts expressed in e-mail correspondence sent from their home computer, eavesdrop on their cell telephones as they drive to work, read the messages from their BlackBerry as they ride the elevator, and then listen in on their office telephone, and monitor their computer and fax machine as they conduct business.''
Privacy advocates have been concerned since the early days of the Bush administration. Bush took office with an expansive view of presidential power, and terrorist attacks have pushed privacy further down the list of his priorities, privacy advocates said.
Failure to respect privacy can lead to public backlash, warned Deirdre Mulligan, a law and public policy expert at the University of California-Berkeley.
She cited the Pentagon's planned Total Information Awareness program, which was designed to find terrorists by scouring electronic records of all Americans, from credit-card transactions to medical files. Disclosure of the program in late 2002 angered members of Congress, who were unaware it existed and feared the ''Big Brother'' implications.
The Pentagon tried to allay concerns by creating two oversight panels, but Congress killed the program. The controversy ''demonized'' data-mining, which could be an important counter-terrorism tool if used properly, Mulligan said.
''The people feel they are not only at risk from the terrorists,'' she said, ''but they're at risk from their own government.''
Domestic spying during the Nixon administration led Congress to pass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. It requires a warrant from a secret court for domestic surveillance.
Bush said Wednesday his constitutional powers as commander in chief and the congressional authorization of the use of force after the Sept. 11 attacks give him power to tap international calls to or from the United States without warrants.
America is at a turning point, said Daniel Solove, author of the book The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age.
''If the people . . . indicate this is not acceptable, then I think ultimately the pushback might be good for privacy'' by spurring long-term policy changes, said Solove. But if citizens don't challenge Bush to make privacy a priority, he said, ''the net result is a very troubling one.''