Anti-terrorist Legislation Must Be Watched Carefully
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. government has labeled thousands of law-abiding American citizens "terrorists." With the continuing threat of biological and other forms of terror in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the government cannot afford to conduct the unfocused, inefficient domestic intelligence operations of the past. But the anti-terrorism proposals now before Congress could make a dangerous situation even more menacing in the short and long term.
In its efforts to protect its policies in Central America during the 1980s, the U.S. government engaged in covert operations, wiretapping, surveillance, and other measures against U.S. citizens and organizations that opposed U.S. policies in the region. In the name of combating terrorism, groups such as the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) were targeted. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan estimates that, during the '80s, "FBI terrorism files swelled by more than 100,000 names, a large portion of whom were law abiding (citizens)."
The operations -- documented in thousands of pages of legal and government reports -- were roundly condemned in Congress and in the courts as violations of civil liberties and a waste of valuable intelligence resources. Some Americans have successfully sued the government for its misdeeds during this period.
Many church workers, nonprofit agencies, immigrants, businesspeople and others still suffer the consequences of being labeled "terrorist" or "terrorist supporter." Some still live in fear and now have a "Big Brother" view of their government, and say that their privacy has been permanently destroyed. If, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a search for internal enemies ensues -- as it did during the Palmer raids of World War I or the McCarthyite purges of the '50s -- a national culture of distrust and disunity could develop. This would weaken the resolve urgently needed to address real terrorism.
Current proposals before Congress give the Attorney General and the State Department broad new powers to brand current and future domestic groups "terrorist organizations." According to many civil liberties groups, the scope and definition of the terms is so wide that protest groups such as Operation Rescue or Greenpeace could be targeted for surveillance. Even those who provide lodging to members of such "terrorist" organizations could have their homes wiretapped and could end up being prosecuted.
Under current proposals for "roving wiretaps," for example, all of the phones and computers on a college campus could be wiretapped or subjected to electronic surveillance if one student is labeled a terrorist for, say, opposing U.S. policy in the same way Central America peace activists and others have done.
These broad definitions raise more questions than provide answers. Will the government waste time chasing law abiding Americans instead of those who want to hurt us? Will the priests, nuns, soccer moms, students, businesspeople and others already questioning U.S. domestic and foreign policy be subjected to the same harassment and violations as those who questioned Central America or Vietnam policy?
Groups as ideologically diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association have united in the In Defense of Freedom Coalition to monitor the new anti-terrorism legislation.
Legislators must craft a definition of "terrorist" that neither paralyzes law enforcement and intelligence agencies at this critical juncture, nor devastates civil liberties and wastes time and resources on law-abiding Americans. Such a definition should focus on those individuals and organizations known to be linked to violent, clandestine acts designed to provoke terror. Unlike the current definition under the Senate anti-terrorism proposal, such a definition would exclude protesting soccer moms and Greenpeace.
In a war against an enemy that remains unclearly defined, we cannot afford a broad definition of who among us is a terrorist. And we all must clearly understand and participate in current deliberations about these definitions. Our own safety may well depend on it.
PNS commentator Roberto Lovato (email@example.com) coordinates the Central American Studies Program at California State Univeristy-Northridge.