Orange Alert for Civil Liberties
Four months ago, Senator Russell Feingold asked the Department of Justice to "describe what efforts are being made within the department to broaden the powers of the USA Patriot Act." He never received a response, but now the American people have the answer.
A leaked copy of the Bush administration's proposed "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003" (DSEA) indicates that even after the 2001 Patriot Act expanded federal police powers while curtailing privacy rights, the Bush administration thinks Americans are still too free and government too small. Like the Patriot Act, the massive "Security Act" proposal contains a few measures that could help catch a terrorist, surrounded by many that merely propel us further toward a secretive police state.
For starters, the DSEA would revoke key elements of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted to prevent government from keeping secrets from the public unless a legitimate security concern exists. Currently, FOIA gives us the right to know if a missing person is in the custody of any government agency. But under DSEA, anyone -- even U.S. citizens -- could be detained secretly in connection with any "terrorist" investigation, a term lacking legal definition.
Does abandoning this bedrock principle of freedom make us safer? Not likely. The Freedom of Information Act already allows the government to withhold such information if disclosure could hamper investigation of other suspects or events. Under the government veil of secrecy established last year, we have no legal right to know who among the 1,000 plus-people secretly detained by the Bush administration since Sept. 11 was charged with a terror-related crime.
Like many Bush administration proposals, this one seems to justify pre-existing agendas. For example, the DSEA grants a long-standing dream of chemical corporations: stripping citizens of our right to know about threats posed by toxic chemicals and the risks of spills or explosions in our communities.
When asked about the document, a Department of Justice spokesperson claimed that it represented merely "staff discussions." But the DSEA clearly is ready for introduction any time -- perhaps while the public is distracted by an attack on Iraq.
The DSEA contains many proposals disturbing for immigrants, including increased punishments for violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act by aliens. But perhaps the most alarming proposal (Section 501) would give the Justice Dept. power to revoke a person's permanent resident alien status or even U.S. citizenship for participating in, or "providing material support to ... a terrorist organization."
Since the 2001 "Patriot Act" redefined "terrorist activity" so broadly that minor vandalism could qualify, donating to a nonprofit organization that, unknown to you, is on Ashcroft's hit list could end your life as an American citizen and resident.
Section 312 would revoke laws that prohibit police from spying on citizens without substantive evidence of criminal activity. This effectively reauthorizes the CIA and FBI to engage in domestic terrorism against activist groups -- practices that became illegal after the well-documented COINTELPRO program abuses of the 1960s ruined the lives of many citizen activists.
Denver area activists don't need to be warned. Last year, they learned that Denver police had created "spy files" on more than 3,000 activists and 200 civic organizations for their organizing activities or participation in rallies. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Quaker group, the American Friends Service Committee, is among the groups labeled "criminal extremist" by Denver police.
This would be laughable if the news hadn't prompted many calls to targeted groups by people asking to have their names removed from databases. Imagine the damage to human rights organizations so labeled at the national level.
These threats are just a few among dozens of concerning proposals within the DSEA. Thanks to a brave soul at the Justice Department who values freedom over obedience to his employer, we have a chance to examine this
assault on civil liberties and debate it rationally before it is thrown upon us amid the fervor of attacking Iraq or terrorist threats.
Now is the time to recall the words of James Madison: "If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." People who value their freedom must fight the oppressive measures proposed in the draft "Security Enhancement Act."
Jeff Milchen (Jeff@ReclaimDemocracy.org) directs ReclaimDemocracy.org, a nonprofit organization devoted to reviving democracy and restoring citizen authority over corporations.