No End to Draconian Terrorism Laws

A couple of years ago the Center for Public Integrity blew the whistle on proposals by President Bush to further gut civil liberties in the anti-terrorism war. The proposals would have given far reaching spy power to the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, permit secret arrests, eliminate some aspects of judicial oversight, establish a DNA data base on anyone suspected of engaging in terrorism, and snatch citizenship from anyone who belongs to or supports disfavored political groups. The Justice Department and the FBI would determine who those groups were.

A big outcry from civil liberties groups forced Bush to backpeddle fast. Justice Department officials claimed that the proposals were merely ideas that some in the department bandied about solely as talking points. There were no plans, they said, to introduce them as legislation. While civil liberties grouped breathed a sigh of relief, and the non-proposals faded from public radar, Bush had no intention of dropping the proposals. He bided his time until the election was past.

With his re-election victory, and a self-proclaimed mandate to do whatever he pleases in the war against terrorism, Bush demanded that Congress strengthen portions of the terrorism law. But Bush was also mindful of the strong reaction that the leaked proposals got, and was not willing to risk a big fight over measures that many regard as unnecessary and constitutionally intrusive. He did not push Congress to pass all of them. The ones that he got through, though, are bad enough.

The original Patriot Act gave the FBI wide discretion to surveil and search the homes and offices of those individuals suspected of terrorist ties. Justice Department officials have established and utilized a computer system to get virtually instant court approval for surveillance. The new law radically expands the FBI's power. FBI agents now can conduct secret surveillance and obtain search warrants to ransack the homes and offices of those individuals they deem potential terrorist threats without having to show any connection between the individual and a terrorist group.

The issue that has been the biggest sore spot among civil liberties groups, and has the potential for even more outrageous abuses, has been the Justice Department's practice of holding individuals suspected of terrorist ties without bail. The Patriot Act gave the Justice Department that authority. Yet, it still had to make a minimal case that the individual that it held without bail was a legitimate terrorist suspect.

Under the law, hundreds of suspects have been detained for long stretches. Even more embarrassing, most were later quietly released with no charges being filed. The cast of supposed dangerous suspects that the FBI rounded up and the Justice Department has branded potential terrorists have been small storeowners, cab drivers, and casual laborers. They were charged with such heavy-duty crimes as petty theft, peddling phony drivers licenses, and making unlicensed money transfers. They are almost all African or Middle Eastern immigrants, and many are U.S. citizens or have resided here for years. Once convicted, they received short jail sentences, probation, or community service. A Syracuse University study in 2003 found that the average sentence for those prosecuted by the Justice Department in supposed international terrorism cases was two weeks.

In many of the cases, the government later quietly admitted that many of the defendants were not involved with or connected to any terrorist groups. Under the new law, bail is automatically denied to anyone that the Justice Department considers a threat. The individual would have to prove that he or she isn't a danger or a flight risk to get bail. That's virtually impossible. Justice Department officials hold most of the legal cards, and terror cases are heard before judges in courts that resemble judicial star chambers.

While the new measures further hammer constitutional protections, top Democrats have again barely uttered a peep over the potential for abuse. Senate Democrat Russ Feingold, for instance, mildly voiced discomfort over the bill but voted for it anyway. Feingold and the other Democrats caved in for two reasons.

They bought Bush's pitch that the Justice Department and the FBI will not misuse its increased power to harass political opponents, or to chill civil liberties. To believe this takes much collective amnesia. The FBI's blatantly illegal counter-intelligence program that targeted dozens of groups and thousands of and individuals it considered politically objectionable in the past has been well documented.

In the wake of Bush's re-election victory, Democrats also are treading cautiously. They don't want to risk being tagged as obstructionists in not giving Bush any weapon he claims he needs to fight terrorism, and in hampering intelligence reform.

With his easy congressional win on the terrorism law, Bush can shove the batch of Draconian proposals that the Justice Department tossed around two years ago and claimed were only ideas into the legislative pipeline whenever he wishes. When he does, there's little reason to think that the Democrats will fight any harder to stop them.


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