WASHINGTON — Gov. Mitt Romney Wednesday raised the prospect of wiretapping mosques and conducting surveillance on foreign students in Massachusetts as he issued a broad call for the federal government to devote far more money and attention to domestic intelligence-gathering.
In remarks that caused alarm among civil libertarians and advocates for immigrants rights, Romney said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation that the United States needs to radically rethink how it guards itself against terrorism.
"How many individuals are coming to our state and going to those institutions who have come from terrorist-sponsored states?" he said, referring to foreign students who attend universities in Massachusetts. "Do we know where they are? Are we tracking them?"
"How about people who are in settings — mosques, for instance — that may be teaching doctrines of hate and terror?" Romney continued. "Are we monitoring that? Are we wiretapping? Are we following what's going on?"
As he ponders a potential run for president in 2008, Romney has positioned himself as a homeland security expert: He sits on a federal homeland security advisory council, is active in the issue with the National Governors Association, and repeatedly speaks about the lessons the country has learned from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and, more recently, from Hurricane Katrina.
Romney, who referred to himself Wednesday as "red-state folk," has also struck more conservative postures on social issues that may alienate voters in Massachusetts but endear him to the Republican electorate nationwide; his tough talk on antiterror measures could also earn him support among conservatives.
His latest message is that the United States needs to shift its focus from response to prevention: Instead of spending billions on training and equipment to react to an attack, he argues, the country ought to work on stopping one.
"It is virtually impossible to have a homeland security system based upon the principles only of protecting key assets and response," he told an audience of about 100. "The key to a multi-layered strategy begins with effective prevention, and for me, prevention begins with intelligence and counterterror activity."
But that activity is deeply troubling to civil rights groups. Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrants and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, called the methods Romney suggested misguided and ineffective. Tracking people based on their ethnicity, he said, will only sow resentment among immigrant communities and prevent their cooperation with authorities.
"Blanket eavesdropping and blanket profiling only erodes the safety and security of our country," Noorani said. "People who really know what national security is and what intelligence is realize that we need to build trust between law enforcement and immigrant communities."
Elyes Yaich, president of the Islamic Society of Northeastern University, said foreign-born students, especially those from Islamic countries, already face unfair scrutiny coming to the United States and that subjecting them to specialized monitoring would further invade their right to privacy.
"It's something that shouldn't happen," Yaich said. "If they're going to do surveillance, why not do it for synagogues and churches, too?"
Nancy Murray, director of education for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said international students are already forced to submit personal data to a federal database designed to let the government closely track them. Keeping closer tabs would only cause a greater chilling effect on scholars coming here from other countries.
"Now they're beginning to think, 'Well, why don't we just go somewhere else?"' Murray said.
"We are really going to fall behind. It's very shortsighted."
Asked to respond to that criticism, Romney spokeswoman Julie Teer said Wednesday night that the governor has a "realistic view" of what it takes to fight terrorism.
"The governor believes we can strike a balance between what is necessary to protect our homeland while respecting individual freedom and liberty," Teer said.
Romney said he believes that both state and federal governments have a role in intelligence-gathering. It is the FBI's job to do wiretapping and surveillance, he said, but Massachusetts has a responsibility to collect any useful information it can.
Contributing: Chase Davis.