You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Washington declares open season on civil liberties
Big Brother is watching

November 9, 2001 | Pages 6 and 7

Do you want John Ashcroft with this kind of power?
"We haven't seen this since Pearl Harbor"
Stand up against this crackdown

AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, people in the U.S. have widespread and understandable fears about hijacked airplanes turned into flying bombs and anthrax sent through the mail. But few understand the scale of the danger unleashed last month by their own government.

The USA PATRIOT Act--which stands for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism--passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress and was signed into law by George W. Bush on October 26. The law should have been called the Big Brother Bill.

Unprecedented police powers are now the law of the land--passed under cover of war and the "homeland security" hysteria. The act gives law enforcement at every level extraordinary new powers for domestic spying, searches, detainment and deportation.

Though Washington claims that the legislation is needed to target terrorists responsible for acts like the World Trade Center attack, the new law will be used in all sorts of situations where there's no connection to terrorism.

Democrats proudly talked about the "concession" they won from the White House--that a number of provisions expire automatically in four years. But many of the most insidious aspects--such as "sneak and peek" searches and cyberspace snooping--don't "sunset" and are now permanent changes in the law. This is a vast attack on basic civil rights and liberties.

CANDACE COHN describes what Washington got away with in the USA PATRIOT Act.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Expanded detention for immigrants

IMMIGRANTS AND other non-citizens can be detained for a week without charges. All that's required is for Attorney General John Ashcroft to "certify"--which means nothing more than his say-so--that the individual is a "terrorist" or a threat to "national security."

Immigrants can be jailed indefinitely without a hearing on Ashcroft's say-so--even if they aren't deportable for terrorist activities--if there's a technical violation (such as overstaying a visa) and the individual isn't accepted back by his or her native country.

This effectively means life sentences for immigrants on the attorney general's vague and unspecified allegations of terrorism or threats to national security.

Secret searches of your home without notification

NOTICE OF a search is considered a key protection under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, because without it, you can't assert your rights. For example, without notice, you couldn't object that police are at the wrong address. Or that they're searching improperly through your dresser drawers when the warrant is limited to a search for a stolen car.

Under USA PATRIOT, all law enforcement has to do is show that giving notice of a search would jeopardize an investigation. The "sneak and peak" provisions apply in all criminal investigations, not just ones involving terrorism.

Searches without probable cause

ALTHOUGH THE courts have carved out many exceptions, under the Fourth Amendment, the state can't conduct invasive searches to obtain evidence of a crime without first proving to a judge that it has "probable cause" of crime. The USA PATRIOT Act stands this requirement on its head.

The new law authorizes searches without any need to show probable cause. Authorities have only to meet a much lower standard of showing that "national security" is involved.

Legitimate protests labeled "terrorist"

THE SECRETARY of state can designate any group that has ever engaged in "violent" activity as a "terrorist organization." Such a sweeping definition could include many groups that engage in direct action--for example, Greenpeace or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. There are no safeguards or procedures to protest or appeal.

Demonstrations that the government says involve activity "dangerous to human life"--which could cover minor acts of vandalism or resisting arrest--would also qualify, because under the act's definition, they "appear to be intended…to influence the policy of a government by intimidation." This provision could be used to criminalize protests against the IMF and World Bank, for example.

What's more, you can be prosecuted under the USA PATRIOT Act for providing even the most minor assistance to anyone designated a "terrorist." Example: You allow friends from out of town to sleep on your floor when they come to demonstrate peacefully against the WTO--even if you stay home while they're at the protest.

Creating guilt by association

NONCITIZENS, including lawful permanent residents, may be barred from entering or reentering the country--or, if they're in the U.S., detained or deported--for belonging to or lawfully assisting groups deemed "terrorist" by the government.

The government doesn't have to notify noncitizens which groups to avoid, and their assistance doesn't need to be related to the alleged terrorist activity.

Groups that aren't even designated as terrorist can be included--if an individual "should have known" that his or her assistance would further loosely defined "terrorist" activity.

New powers to invade our privacy

THE GOVERNMENT can obtain your financial and medical records because you sat on an airplane next to a terrorism suspect. This is just one of the ways that the government can now legally invade your privacy with breathtaking scope--and without meaningful judicial limitations.

Under USA PATRIOT, the government can--without showing probable cause--force institutions to secretly turn over your financial books, medical records, mental health records, employment and drug-testing records, DNA hair samples and fingerprints.

Records have to be turned over as long as authorities make a very low showing of relevance. And judges must issue the orders--even if they believe that law enforcement is on a bogus fishing expedition.

Institutions are explicitly barred from telling you that they had to turn over information.

Lower standards for wiretaps

THE USA PATRIOT Act lowers standards for police to tap phones. Authorities don't have to show "probable cause" to obtain wiretaps for investigating a "crime."

And the new law legalizes so-called "roving" wiretaps--in which the government can bug any phone that a suspect uses without getting new warrants each time.

Monitoring e-mail and Internet activity

LAW ENFORCEMENT agents are supposed to view only e-mail addresses and Web sites visited, and not "content." But the standards for cyberspace searches have been lowered under the USA PATRIOT Act.

Rather than the traditional Fourth Amendment requirement of evidence of "probable cause" for content, the state only has to assert "relevance to an ongoing criminal investigation." The judge then must issue a search order.

Even if you aren't a target of a government investigation, your e-mail and Internet activity may still be monitored, either through the "Carnivore" Internet surveillance system used by the FBI or because you qualify as a "trespasser." Carnivore gives the government access to electronic communications of nonsuspects if they happen to share the same Internet Service Provider as a targeted suspect.

A "trespasser" is defined as someone who doesn't have authorized access to a machine or network--and therefore is fair game for surveillance. You can be a "trespasser" if you were late in your payments to an Internet Service Provider or if you shopped online at work against company policy.

Access to private student records

LAW ENFORCEMENT can get access to student records that used to be confidential from colleges and universities. The state will also have greater access to the National Education Statistics Act, which collects vast amounts of confidential, identifiable data for statistical research purposes.

Until now, such information has been strictly confidential without exception.

Back to the top

Do you want John Ashcroft with this power?

THESE ATTACKS and more became law when George W. Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act.

Many provisions are no doubt unconstitutional under current case law. But their constitutionality will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court--which is controlled by a right-wing majority that has chipped away at civil liberties for years.

The first victims of the crackdown have been Arabs and Arab Americans. Immigrants are least able to protect themselves legally--and therefore make the easiest targets. But as in any war, after they come for the weakest, they move on.

And the broad police powers sanctioned by the USA PATRIOT Act are explicitly intended to be used in ordinary criminal proceedings with no connection to "terrorism"--and to stifle political dissent.

As Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), the lone senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act, explained, "The whole tenor of the debate was, 'Let's grab as much as we can,' given the fear of terrorism."

There has been little outcry about this assault. Washington has exploited ordinary people's understandable fears of terrorism to build a tide of support.

Many people have accepted the idea that if terrorists can wreak havoc in our lives, we should be willing to give up a few minor liberties in order to be safe. But the civil liberties that Washington is trampling on aren't minor--and safety isn't the real motivation anyway.

If the USA PATRIOT Act was really about catching suicide hijackers and anthrax terrorists, then why do key provisions apply to all criminal law? Why are judges written out of the process or restricted so that they're required to issue certain orders?

Those who think that the USA PATRIOT Act is an acceptable price to pay for "security" have to answer a question. Do you want John Ashcroft--a rabid anti-abortionist, Confederate flag lover and opponent of school desegregation while attorney general of Missouri--deciding who you can associate with? Do you want people put in jail for life on Ashcroft's say-so alone, without even a hearing?

Washington officials are manipulating the fears of ordinary people to get whatever they want. Safety and justice are the least of their concerns.

Back to the top

"We haven't seen this since Pearl Harbor"

HOW MANY people are actually suspects in the September 11 attacks? If Attorney General John Ashcroft gets his way, we'll never know.

According to the Justice Department, 1,017 people--nearly all of them immigrants or foreign citizens--had been detained in the investigation as of November 1. What the feds won't say is how many are still in prison, what charges they're being held on, and whether or not they have access to attorneys.

But by all accounts, not a single person has been charged with a crime directly related to September 11. "The secret detention of more than 800 people over the past few weeks is frighteningly close to the practice of 'disappearing' people in Latin America," said Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies.

Groups like Martin's estimate that more than 200 people are behind bars in connection with the investigation. Most are being held on minor immigration violations or criminal charges unrelated to September 11, and few have been allowed contact with their families or lawyers. And there is a growing number of reports of detainees who were physically abused.

"There's been nothing as massive as this since the day after Pearl Harbor," said Harvey Grossman of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Back to the top

Stand up against this crackdown

THIS ISN'T the first time that U.S. political leaders used war as an excuse to crack down on dissent. Opponents of the First and Second World Wars went to jail for their stands, and the U.S. threw 120,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps during the Second World War.

With the rise of the 1960s struggles, the federal government organized the COINTELPRO crackdown. The FBI and CIA spied extensively, covertly and illegally on the constitutional activities of thousands of citizens, including Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leaders, Black Panthers, anti-Vietnam War activists and unionists and even many mainstream senators and members of Congress.

Organizations like the Panthers were decimated by COINTELPRO repression.

But the attack on dissent was broader. President Richard Nixon, in particular, was fond of using "national security" as the excuse for harassment.

Yet in the end, Nixon's policies of repression were his downfall. The Watergate scandal--which began with the revelation that the White House had used CIA-connected operatives to spy on the Democrats--forced his resignation in the mid-1970s.

Watergate was part of the tide of popular opposition to the Big Brother policies of the U.S. government. For example, the mid-1970s Church Committee hearings exposed the crimes of the CIA--not only internationally but in the U.S., too.

The real limits that were placed on the power of Washington's spies and cops were the result of organizing by antiwar and other activists, who turned popular opinion against the belief that we should give up our rights in the name of security.

The USA PATRIOT Act is designed to take back these restrictions on the power of the state. It's up to our movement to fight back against these attacks--as part of our struggle for a more just, democratic and free world.

Home page | Back to the top