RIDGEWAY: Clinton's Anti-Terrorism Act

In the name of combating the far right, the Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced by Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City bombing and passed this spring, seems sure only to consolidate the movement's political legitimacy.The act not only guts habeas corpus, but it continues to undermine the judiciary by expanding a system of secret deportation courts. And, in a little noticed section, the law gives commercial banks extraordinary political powers over ordinary citizen's lives. In essence, this act would seem to confirm some of the most far-fetched conspiracy theories put forward by the John Birch Society.One of the major effects of the terrorism legislation is the establishment of a new secret "removal court" to hear evidence in deportation proceedings. This new court is modeled along the lines of the little-known, supersecret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court -- made up of a group of judges with the power to authorize government surveillance of alleged foreign agents. Convened in 1978, it has never turned down a government counterespionage request.Before the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Justice Department complained that in using the court system to deport suspected terrorists, it ran the risk of divulging national security information, and so compromising its own intelligence sources.Under the new act, Justice can argue deportation cases in a sealed, secret court. If the judges agree with the prosecution's case, they issue an order allowing the government to seek a special public deportation proceeding from a federal district court. Only then is the deportee informed of the action being taken against them. They are then given an unclassified summary of the evidence presented in the secret court, and based on this summary the deportee must mount a defense.Even then, the proceedings are stacked against the deportee. The district court hearings are public, but at any time the judge can simply turn off the public part of court proceedings and conduct his or her own secret review of whatever classified information the Justice Department decides the judge should see. The deportee and their attorney are left utterly in the dark.As a small caveat to the justice system, the act specifies that the defendant has a right to his or her own attorney, and as in a criminal case, the government will provide one if the defendant can't afford it.In all likelihood, the judges serving on the new removal court will be culled from those with experience serving on the secret intelligence court, since it is that group of judges who now form part of the judge pool for the new court. "This is a deeply disturbing trend," James Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties group, told Legal Times, one paper that has reported in detail on the new court." Just a year and a half ago, we had an expansion of the jurisdiction of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court, and now we have a whole new secret court. In essence this is an expansion of the jurisdiction of the FISA court into a realm that has nothing to do with surveillance or investigative techniques."The expansion of secret courts is but one area of the new act. More astounding is a section that apparently allows a bank to seize the assets of any individual whom it believes to be an agent of a group the government has designated as a foreign terrorist organization. The bank would be required to freeze the assets of the individual or organization even if they were not themselves deemed a "terrorist organization."The banks themselves are under great pressure to be vigilant. If the bank does not take action, it is subject to a civil penalty of $50,000 or twice the amount of the assets, whichever is greater. And the law provides no mechanism for the domestic organization to appeal the bank's determination to freeze its assets. As the American Civil Liberties Union noted in April. "No provision of the bill tells a bank how to determine whether a group or individual is such an agent. Banks would be likely to freeze the assets of individual citizens whose names are similar or identical to names of people who may be agents of designated foreign 'terrorist' organizations."This section of the law is written in the vaguest way possible. But it could very well boil down to this sort of scenario: if you were to give money to NORAID, the Northern Ireland lobby that has often been accused of funding the IRA, or to a group supporting Palestinian independence, and the government deemed that group a terrorist organization, then your bank account would be frozen and you would have absolutely no form of recourse. What constitutes a terrorist group and what constitutes "foreign" (undefined in the legislation) is left to the secretary of state to decide. As a practical matter, this means the secretary of state will be unchecked because no court will ever second-guess him. Among other things, the act sets no standards against which a judge could measure his actions.According to the American Bankers Association, it did not oppose the terrorism legislation because, in its view, it merely carries on asset control procedures already in operation. But David Cole of Georgetown Law School believes that the new law, with its penalties against banks that don't comply, is so ambiguously worded that the banks may determine that they have to take aggressive action.Quite what the terrorism bill has to do with countering the actions of those responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing is hard to say. The act requires manufacturers' identification tags on plastic explosives (which were not used in the Oklahoma City bombing) but, in deference to the National Rifle Association, omits proposals for similar tags to be put on ingredients (such as fertilizer) used in making homemade bombs such as the one used to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Building.The act would also formally cancel the modest restrictive language now part of other laws that prevent the FBI from conducting wide-ranging fishing expeditions and from investigating activities protected by the First Amendment. It would also allow files given to the government in confidence, say for asylum purposes, to be made available for other prosecutions. It also establishes the grounds for aliens, fleeing political persecution in their own lands, to be seized in the U.S. and returned home.It seems hard to believe that the Republican Congress, so committed to returning powers to the states, and a Democratic president could have concocted such a draconian law -- one that enormously increases the power of central government, inserting it further and more insidiously into the daily lives of its citizens. What is more extraordinary is that it passed at a time when there is a heightened sensitivity in both political parties to the outlandish behavior of the federal police, be it the embarrassing scandals surrounding the CIA, or the trigger-happy activities of both the FBI and BATF.This new Anti-Terrorism Act merely buttresses the already ongoing above-the-law approach of federal law enforcement. In the 1980s, after two decades of the FBI's COINTELPRO activities against the left were exposed, the agency vowed to stay away from probing domestic organizations.But, as testimony presented at the recent Oklahoma trial of white supremacist Ray Lampley revealed, the FBI has for the last nine months been infiltrating the militia movement. It even, in the name of surveillance, helped bankroll a regional militia information center (complete with 1-800 phone service), which sent out a fax threatening a militia uprising if the terrorism bill was passed. As one militia group commented in a recent mailing, "I wonder why the FBI is threatening the U.S. Congress in the name of the 'militia.' Anyone care to speculate?"James Ridgeway with additional reporting by Susan Monaco

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