Balancing Liberty and Security
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Seared into the memory of the architect of the USA Patriot Act is the image of his mother wielding an ax almost as big as herself, chopping to pieces the rickety boat that carried them from Vietnam to Malaysia in 1978.
"My first question was, 'Is she crazy?'" recalls Viet Dinh. "We could be imprisoned or forced back to sea in an even less seaworthy vessel. But it was recognition that nothing could be as bad as going back to Vietnam. It was a leap of faith into our freedom." The irony for Dinh is that today, some Americans accuse him of presiding over perhaps the most sweeping curtailment of individual freedoms since the McCarthy era.
The lanky 34-year-old with a ready smile sees it differently. As assistant attorney general overseeing the Office of Legal Policy, Dinh describes himself as "an attendant of freedom." Dressed casually in blue jeans, he looks more like a young, gung-ho hi-tech entrepreneur than a professor of constitutional law and what the Los Angeles times describes as part of the "brain trust" behind the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign.
The child who learned English by reading Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries went on to Harvard University and then its law school, where he edited the Harvard Law Review. He became the first and only Vietnamese-American law professor at Georgetown University.
After work with the legal counsels that investigated Whitewater and impeached President Clinton, Dinh honed his media savviness as a Constitutional law expert on CNN.
Dinh's office used to be concerned mostly with judicial nominations. That changed after 9/11. "Out of the chaos of 9/11 came the opportunity to survey how we do our business," Dinh says. "The attorney general (John Ashcroft) asked me to do a top-to-bottom review of how we approach the task of counter-terrorism and recommend changes."
In law school, Dinh wrote that the role of government was to maximize "the zone of liberty" around each person. When some, even in the government, now speak of balancing liberty and security, Dinh winces. That, he says, is the slippery slope toward becoming "the boy in the bubble -- security without liberty. It's not an America I would want to live in."
For Dinh, the job of government is "to provide the preconditions for certain ends -- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Security is a means; liberty is the end. As for charges that the Justice Department has gone too far in curtailing civil liberties and due process, Dinh says simply, "The threat to liberty comes from Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, not from the men and women in blue who work to uphold the law."
When he and his family landed in America, Dinh says he took any job he could find, working in strawberry fields or flipping burgers. His mother, a teacher in Vietnam, took on seamstress work. They sent money back to Vietnam, where his father and sister were still trapped.
"We had no money. We did not know the language. But we experienced true freedom -- no middle-of-the-night searches, no arbitrary government actions."
Dinh says he recognizes that in post-9/11 America, immigrants are afraid that they can be deported for the slightest reason. Failure to comply with certain immigration laws, however must be "willful" to be a "removable offence." But an immigrant, he says, is a kind of "guest" obligated to obey laws, some of which "have not been enforced for 50 years."
"We are letting you know that we are enforcing them now, Dinh says. "We are not here to play 'gotcha.'"
What about racial profiling? It's "wrong ... immoral and illegal" to target any person for disparate treatment simply because of their race, ethnicity or religion, Dinh says. When asked why most investigative efforts have concentrated on men of a certain age, from certain countries, Dinh shrugs. "These are not our criteria. They are al Qaeda's. These are the countries they have cells in, the age groups they recruit from."
Dinh says the Justice Department is aggressively investigating anybody about whom they have "individualized suspicions." Dinh says he makes no apologies for using "every legal authority" at his disposal to get such people off the street.
Dinh says there are only two ways to prevent terrorist attacks -- information or detention. "By our constitutional design, we do not do preventive detention like many European countries," he says. "So we have to develop information for the purposes of detention." The voluntary interviews of thousands of Middle Eastern men in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, elicited good leads from people who did not even realize they had leads, Dinh says.
The Patriot Act, he maintains, "makes the best use of the information we have, sharing information between law enforcement agencies to put the pieces of puzzle together so we can look for the needle in the haystack."
Dinh says his department cannot release the information that many civil libertarians desire. About 20,000 people are picked up every day on immigration violations, and only a fraction of those are deemed "of interest" to the war on terror. "To give a constant update of who is of interest and who is not would give would-be terrorists a roadmap of our investigation," Dinh says.
Long before he became assistant attorney general, Dinh was profiled in the book "25 Vietnamese Americans in 25 Years," published in 2000. Now, in addition to fending off questions posed by civil libertarians, Dinh must deal with persistent Vietnamese parents who want him to meet their daughters.
"I know I have a special place in the Vietnamese community, though I seek to serve all Americans," Dinh says. "I just try to bring my girlfriend along with me whenever I can."
Growing up, Viet Dinh's father hoped he would be a Catholic priest or a doctor. Dinh chose medicine, but jokes that he switched to law to avoid the sight of blood. He had always enjoyed debates, and still finds himself drawn to studying "the institutions that safeguard our government -- for I had seen government that did not work."