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For a standard desktop install of either Debian SARGE or Debian SID, I've always just plugged the silly thing into a free USB port and it automatically mounts itself and shows up as a little icon on my Gnome desktop. Not special activities or software installations required. Right-click on the icon and choose "unmount" to release the thing.
I use Debian stable with KDE. The way I got USB drives to work was rather manual. First, I manually created an fstab entry for the USB partition. Second, I created a KDE desktop icon named "USB" as a hard drive partition device icon. Nothing at all happens automatically when I plug in a USB drive. I have to manually right click on the "USB" desktop icon and select "mount" to mount it. Then I have to manually right click on the icon and select "unmount" when I'm done.