Know Your Rights

ashcroftTo the average person looking at John Ashcroft's now-infamous road show in defense of the USA PATRIOT Act, the whole ruckus -- complete with organized protestors and eager reporters -- must look rather comical. In fact, with 91 percent of registered voters unaware of the Act's encroachment on civil liberties, the entire dispute might even appear unnecessary.

Unnecessary, that is, until you take a look at the Act in all of its 342 pages of bureaucratic details and constitutional violations. And then, somewhere between the elimination of privacy rights and abolition of checks and balances, it becomes apparent that over the furor of "preventive justice," the White House has silently squandered our constitutional protections of due process and civil liberties.

Targeting Immigrants and Political Protestors

Almost all rights enshrined under the Constitution are guaranteed to "people," citizens and non-citizens alike. This was an intentional wordplay by our founding fathers to reflect the authority by which we receive these rights -- not because we belong to a particular nation or religion, but because we belong to humanity. This categorical inclusion of all humankind makes the worst provisions of the PATRIOT Act all the more deplorable for their targeted discrimination of non-citizens.

The Act has manipulated loopholes and jurisdictions under immigration law to authorize deportation of non-citizens for such harmless acts like so-called "suspicious" political associations and failing to alert immigration authorities of a changed address. In essence, these provisions of the PATRIOT Act authorize deportation for lawful group activities and allow the Attorney General to detain foreigners with a piece of paper.

Such clear constitutional violations by the PATRIOT Act, however, are not restricted to foreigners alone. The legislation expands terrorism laws to include "domestic terrorism," and grants federal agencies increased powers over political organizations, paving the way for surveillance, harassment, and criminal action against any organization deemed "suspicious" by the government. Consequently, the mere threat of criminal action is employed to suppress peaceful dissent.

Sneak and Peek

Intelligence agents are similarly granted increased powers to detain citizens for investigative purposes and conduct surveillance -- even when there is no basis for suspecting criminal activity. One particularly Orwellian provision, Section 215, involves the notorious "sneak and peek" warrant. Not to be confused with the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizures, this new and improved PATRIOT warrant permits agents to search homes and confiscate property under a low evidentiary standard, without first notifying the owner. This means that the government now has the power to secretly search through your files, computer or otherwise, without first letting you know the search has taken place. The warrant also betrays long-held "knock and announce" requirements -- allowing subjects of a search to challenge errors in the warrant, such as a wrong address or mistaken name.

If you think that the "sneak and peek" warrant is a direct and blatant violation of your rights, you aren't the only one. The House of Representatives recently voted overwhelmingly to restrict the measure, with a similar response expected in the Senate.

What Are You Reading?

The House also limited another clause of Section 215, granting the government surveillance into the very files of our free press curators: public libraries and bookstores. Under this provision, the FBI can force librarians and booksellers to turn over the records of their customers without showing probable cause before an ordinary court. By "turn over their records," I mean that law enforcement agents can now use your borrowing or buying records from libraries and bookstores to build a case of "suspicious activity" against any person, citizen or not.

The Act also carries a gag order, criminalizing discussion of FBI searches with the threat of prosecution. Essentially, this enables the FBI to find out what books you have bought or borrowed, without letting you know the search ever took place. Contrary to Ashcroft's dismissal of librarian concerns as "baseless hysteria," one survey by the University of Illinois in October 2002 found that federal and local law enforcement officials contacted over 10 percent of their universities for investigation. After checking this university survey for its authenticity, it would seem that Ashcroft would be well advised to collaborate with law enforcement officials before he starts a war of words with our nation's librarians.

Local Revolt

Such obvious violations of due process and equal protection have not gone unnoticed in America's town halls. More than 160 local governments and three states have passed resolutions opposing the PATRIOT Act, and numerous civil liberty groups have filed lawsuits against the Act's constitutional violations. At the same time the Inspector General of the Justice Department has submitted two scathing critiques of the Department's treatment of immigrants swept up under the Act's broad provisions. The report details dozens of blatant civil rights abuses, many alleging inhumane treatment of prisoners at the hands of Department employees.


What makes these disclosures all the more startling is the latest attempt by the Bush Administration to expand state powers even further with a new PATRIOT II. Taking advantage of the 9-11 anniversary, President Bush recently outlined his plan to drop current subpoena protections, expand the federal death penalty statutes, and bar purported "terror suspects" from being released on bail. With civil liberties already overrun by patriotic fervor and state abuse, how can the American people possibly afford to squander more constitutional protections?

The Administration's current policy seems underhanded when it asserts its commitment to freedom and democracy, particularly when both principles seem to be the first casualties of war. As Senator Russell Feingold, the lone Senate opposition vote to the PATRIOT Act, forebodingly said, "Preserving our freedom is one of the main reasons that we are now engaged in this new war on terrorism. We will lose that war without firing a shot if we sacrifice the liberties of the American people."

Brigid O'Neil is a researcher with the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California..

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