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Message of Preparedness, Not Paranoia, Urged

Forum on safety since Sept. 11 discusses civil liberties and identity theft.

It has been almost four years since the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers took the lives of over 3,000 people. In the time that has passed, National legislation has been passed to make the country safer.

At the McLean Community Center Tuesday night, representatives from local, federal and national government agencies held a forum to discuss just how safe America has become.

“This forum was intended to be for information purposes only,” said Carole Herrick, president of the Dranesville District Democratic Women’s Club, which sponsored the event.

“We had all sorts of forms of security, like homeland security, home security, gang violence prevention, identity security, everything but Social Security because that’s too contentious of an issue right now,” she said.

The club wanted to “present something to the public” that would get those who attended thinking about safety and security in a new way, she said.

“These are timely topics,” said Pamela Danner, attorney with Danner and Associates in McLean, who emceed the event. “This is something that we have discussed since September 11 on a local and national level.”

“This was a first for our organization,” said Danner, also a member of the club. “A lot of people stayed after the presentations were finished to ask questions and get some more information. I think the whole evening went excellently.”

Officer Thomas Black from the Crime Prevention Office at the McLean District Station spoke on identity theft, a type of security that can easily be overlooked.

“So many people think the Internet is the only way identity theft can happen,” he said. “Leaving mail in your mailbox if you’re out of town on vacation is another way. If you go to the gym and leave your wallet in your locker unlocked, someone could get the information off your credit card and get another credit card and ruin your credit that way,” he said.

Black suggested that people look over their credit report at least once a year to check for any inaccuracies or signs of identity theft.

“People make the assumption that they’ll somehow know if their identity is stolen, but more often than not, once they find out it’s already too late,” he said. “I get a lot of questions from people about this. They don’t realize just how easy it is to have happen to them.”

His intention Tuesday night was to inform people, not scare them, he said.

“People need to be a little more concerned about their safety and a little more careful about when personal information is given out,” he said. “If I came up to you on the street and asked to see your credit card, you’d never let me see it. But we think nothing of giving our cards to a perfect stranger at a restaurant.”

The most important thing a person can do to protect his or her identity is to purchase a paper shredder to eliminate easy access to personal information, Black said.

“There are numerous places where information can be stolen, including out of your garbage,” he said. Once trash is in a bag and sitting on the curb, it becomes public property and anything taken from the bag is fair game, he said.

ONE OF THE MORE controversial pieces of legislation passed with the intention of protecting national safety has been the Patriot Act.

‘There are provisions in the Patriot Act that are quite controversial,” said Carol Elder Bruce a trial lawyer with Venable in Washington, D.C.

“There are some parts that are quite good and allow agencies to work together and share information,” she said. “But there are also provisions that complicate important civil liberties as well.”

Terrorism is a methodology, not a race or creed of people that can be easily identified, she said.

Shortly after the attacks, she said, the U.S. Attorney General passed an edict to allow the conversations between lawyers of those arrested on suspicion of terrorism to be monitored.

“That’s an outright violation of attorney-client relations,” she said. “It strips the person of their ability to talk with counsel and get legal advice. If you can’t be honest with your attorney, they can’t give you effective assistance.”

Additionally, lists have been created and used by the Travel Safety Administration to monitor passengers and watch for suspected terrorists. This list can have wide-reaching impacts on people who have no connection to terrorism at all.

“The police officer who spoke right after me said he’s on one of those lists. He said he’s been subjected to secondary searches repeatedly because of it,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of people wrongfully included on the no-fly lists, saying it restricts the freedom of innocent people to travel without harassment.

“The list could be a good idea if there was a way for people to prove they’re not the same person government agencies are looking for,” Bruce said.

She wants to believe the Patriot Act, and the politicians that wrote it, “are well-intentioned civil servants who want to do everything possible to protect the American people,” she said. The fear, however, is that many of the restrictions have been created out of paranoia.

“We risk trampling the things that make this country great,” she said.

AS A MEMBER of the Office of Commonwealth Preparedness, Delegate Brian Moran (D-46) spoke about what Virginia is doing to keep its citizens safe.

“We have 76 tasks we’re currently working on, and a lot has to deal with communication coordination,” he said.

The group has created a line of succession, should the governor be killed or incapacitated in an attack or other event, Moran said. “We’ve also created an evacuation plan should there be an attack on Richmond. We’re in a susceptible area, so close to Washington.”

Additionally, he spoke about the need for people to become aware and protect themselves against gang violence, drunk drivers and other threats to their personal safety.

“We want to stay vigilant, we don’t want to become complacent and think we have nothing to worry about,” he said. “But we also don’t want to have crippling paranoia. We have to move forward.”

Virginia has been in a state of elevated alert since the national warning system was created months after the terrorist attacks, which Moran said makes it even more important that the region have enough police officers and firefighters should another attack occur.

“They’re our first responders and we want to make sure we’re prepared,” he said. “We encourage everyone to take a first aid class to be ready to respond in case of another attack.”

He was pleased with the presentations Tuesday night, saying the audience “asked a lot of questions and seemed fascinated” with the information the speakers presented.

“We are only as safe as our people are alert,” he said. “We need to be able to respond to our ever-changing world. One year the hot issue may be gang violence, another year it might be drug use. There’s a myriad of issues out there” for citizens to educated themselves about, and forums like this one help to provide needed information, he said.

Other speakers included Congressman James Moran (D-8), Delegate Vivian Watts (D-39) and Merni Fitzgerald, director of public affairs for Fairfax County.