A Justice Department proposal would grant the government sweeping authority to deport and secretly spy, wiretap, imprison, and punish U.S. citizens and legal immigrants suspected of "terrorism." The bill called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 grants law enforcement and intelligence powers - many not related to terrorism - that are antithetical to our constitutionally guaranteed rights, and checks and balances on the executive. It would diminish personal privacy by giving government surveillance authority, reduce its public accountability by increasing secrecy and expand the definition of "terrorism."
Timothy Edgar, a legislative council for the ACLU says, "The new Ashcroft proposal threatens to fundamentally alter the constitutional protections that allow us to be both safe and free." And that, "If it becomes law, it will encourage police spying on political and religious activities, allow the government to wiretap without going to court and dramatically expand the death penalty under an overbroad definition of terrorism."
The most troubling aspect of this proposal is a provision that would strip American citizenship from anyone who supports the lawful activities of a group that the executive branch disapproves. It would actually turn any citizen into an alien and then subject him or her to deportation, giving the Attorney General the authority to designate anyone who he deems a threat to "our national defense, foreign policy or economic interests." A federal court of appeals has already ruled that this procedure is not susceptible to judicial review. So the Attorney General would not need to prove that a legal immigrant has engaged in a criminal or harmful activity.
Other provisions would insulate the war on terrorism from public or judicial scrutiny. And, authorize secret arrests, and even terminate court orders barring illegal police spying from before 9/11, without regard to the need for judicial supervision. It would also allow secret government wiretaps and searches from the supersecret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, without any warrant.
This proposal is much more far-reaching than its predecessor, the euphemistically acronymed US PATRIOT Act that was hastily passed and enacted in the aftermath of 9/11. That law gave the government new surveillance powers, including wiretaps, searches and other tools to combat terrorism. At least 35 cities have adopted resolutions opposing that law, because it seriously erodes civil liberties. The ACLU and Center for National Securities Studies have sued the Bush administration over its secret detention of suspected terrorists from 9/11.
In an online statement, the ACLU asks the public to take action by telling the Congress that it must oppose any efforts by the Attorney General that threaten our constitutional rights, in the name of security against terrorism. The ACLU asks Congress to investigate and oversee how this administration has used or misused the powers already given under the PATRIOT Act.
The rights group says such legislation would allow the government to spy on First Amendment- protected activities. Thus, by using an overly broad definition of terrorism, organizations such as Operation Rescue that use protest tactics, would become victims of criminal wiretapping and other electronic surveillance. The act would also terminate court-approved limits on police spying that were put in place to prevent McCarthy-style law enforcement persecution.
It would radically diminish personal privacy by removing checks on government power by permitting, without any connection to anti-terrorism efforts, sensitive information of citizens for sharing with local and state law enforcement. In addition, personal credit reports could be accessed secretly, without consent and without judicial process.
It would increase government secrecy while diminishing public accountability in authorizing secret arrests in immigrant and other cases, where the person is not criminally charged. It would allow sampling and cataloguing of innocent Americans' genetic information, without consent or court order. And, it would shelter federal agents involved in illegal surveillance from criminal prosecution, if they follow orders of high executive officials.
The passage of the first PATRIOT Act took place in an atmosphere of fear, and the critics suspect this bill may likewise be legislated during heightened insecurity. We must protect ourselves, but it should come through means that are sensible. In the process, we must take measures to ensure that the very values for which our nation stands are not sacrificed.
Siraj Mufti, Ph.D. is a researcher and free-lance journalist.
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