THE SHADOW DRAGON
- Rep Power
FDNY anti-terror plans spark fears of witch hunts
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Plans for New York firefighters to share anti-terrorism information with Homeland Security officials have drawn criticism from Islamic Americans and even some firefighters who fear the program may violate constitutional protections.
New York City firefighters rest after responding to an emergency in July.
The Fire Department of New York has a vested interest in spotting terrorists. The city is a potential target six years after the September 11 attacks that killed 343 of its firefighters at the World Trade Center.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are establishing protocols for sharing threat information with first responders, and for handling information from firefighters. And they want to train firefighters to look for indications of terrorist activity.
Firefighters and fire inspectors are uniquely positioned to identify terrorists because, unlike police, they can enter homes and businesses without search warrants, officials say.
"They get to go into places where police don't get to go into," said Jack Tomarchio, the DHS's deputy assistant secretary for intelligence.
DHS and FDNY officials began discussing the idea a year ago, Tomarchio said. Once the program is perfected in New York, it can be extended to fire departments everywhere.
"I think it's very important throughout the country," said New York City Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. "There has to be a heightened awareness in the United States, given the events of 9/11, and given the statements that have been made by terrorist groups."
A similar proposal to have the nation's letter carriers serve as the eyes and ears of Homeland Security fell under a torrent of protests from letter carriers, but opposition to this proposal has come chiefly from civil libertarians.
Critics contend the program erodes the legal distinctions between police officers, who must obtain search warrants before entering a dwelling, and firefighters, who can enter without warrants.
"What it effectively does is turn firefighters into moving surveillance devices for the police," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. Firefighters "don't have to get a warrant because they're not technically there for a law enforcement purpose," he said.
Turley accused the Bush administration of "using firefighters to get around the Fourth Amendment and the need for a warrant. That's a serious problem in a society that values privacy."
Fire Commissioner Scoppetta said critics misconstrue what firefighters and inspectors will be doing.
"They don't ... move from room to room to search for things. ... No one is training them to do that," said Scoppetta. "But if they happen to be in a facility that represents itself to be a coffee shop and then they see bags of ammonium nitrate and five-gallon drums of gasoline in there, I suspect then they would report that."
Scoppetta said the next step would be to call "law enforcement and if there are going to be search warrants required, all of that would take place."
Turley counters that firefighters already have the ability to act when their suspicions are aroused.
"Firefighters have always been able to use what's called the 'plain view' doctrine," said Turley. "If they see something in plain view that's unlawful, they can report, they can sometimes seize it."
But this new scenario is different, Turley said.
"Here the firefighters would be trained for the purpose for law enforcement investigation -- to spot things and analyze conditions or residences," said Turley. "That goes beyond just the occasional, relatively rare case where a firefighter sees something unlawful."
"Whether they like it or not, once they are trained and once they play a role with law enforcement, they will become part of law enforcement and that's going to add risks. And it may actually also discourage people from having them in their homes," Turley said.
Some firefighters themselves are concerned about the idea. "Using firefighters to gain access to people's homes, it could potentially undermine what we do everyday," said Jeff Zack of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents 287,000 firefighters nationwide. "Any program should address residents' privacy concerns and firefighters' training requirements."
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said firefighters should report on anything they encounter that's clearly illegal.
"But you don't want firefighters as spies, so to speak, who are using almost warrantless searches to enter homes and to look for things that they're not really supposed to be looking for," said Hooper. "You have to be able to trust firefighters, that they're not coming there to do you harm, to spy on you. They're coming there to save you. And this policy could break down that link."
Books, pictures, language and dress could also raise suspicions "with someone who had a particular prejudice or bias," Hooper said. "This would break down the trust between ordinary citizens and firefighters."
Fire Commissioner Scoppetta said he "can't imagine this being a serious threat to the citizenry. When you have a medical emergency and if a friend or relative of yours gives signs of collapsing from a heart attack, I think you're going to call 9-1-1, and we're going to send one of our ambulances to the site and people are not going to worry."
FDNY Chief Salvatore Cassano also defended the program.
"Nobody's out for a witch hunt. We're not breaking down doors; we're not going into backdoors," said Cassano. "If we're in a residence for an inspection or a fire or an emergency or a medical emergency, and we happen to come across something that looks suspicious, we're going to report it. That's what we do."
Cassano said the FDNY already trains firefighters to look for suspicious items and to report them. All fire trucks and fire inspectors already carry cards with tips.
It is unclear how the DHS program will differ from existing FDNY training. "We have a lot of work to do to put this thing together. If it's a 100-yard dash, we're at the five-yard line," said the DHS's Tomarchio.
The IAFF and CAIR say they're monitoring the program.
Turley said the public should understand the difference between what firefighters are currently allowed to do and the proposed changes. "Firefighters now can report suspicious terrorists. What's being done here is something much more formal."
"They're not just going to be reporting things that they see that seem suspicious," said Turley. "They will be looking for them. They will be trained to look for them. ... I think that's dangerous for society and even the firefighters themselves."
Said Fire Chief Cassano, "After the World Trade Center event, we realized firefighters were not only going to be first responders -- that we also had to be first preventers."
This opens the door for reporting illegal immigrants, drugs, and anything else.
Personally, i don't want to see any more building fall in NY, state and country by terrorist
The security adviser resigning may have to with money.....i'm sure she has been offered a large sum of money to do books, interviews, and a top notch position
terrorist done change the phrase "have a nice day, I'll catch you later, one, stay up fam, etc"