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Big Brother is watching you

January 27, 2006 | Pages 8 and 9

IN THE name of fighting the "war on terror," the Bush administration says that it has to take steps here at home to protect us. Fighting terrorism comes before protecting civil liberties, goes the argument.

As White House strategist Karl Rove told the Republican National Committee last week, "President Bush believes if al-Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why."

But as each new scandal about secret spying and government targeting of immigrants and peaceful protesters comes to light, it's clearer than ever that the government's idea of "protecting" U.S. citizens at home involves shredding our civil liberties. NICOLE COLSON looks at what's at stake in the Bush administration's attack on our rights.

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SECRET SURVEILLANCE, labeling peaceful protesters "threats" to national security, detaining immigrants for weeks and sometimes months--in the name of protecting freedom and democracy. It may sound like something out of a novel by Franz Kafka, but it's the reality of the Bush administration's war on our rights.

Washington has been rocked by the recent New York Times revelations that George Bush signed a secret order in 2002 allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to listen in on phone conversations and view e-mail messages of "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people inside the U.S.--without a warrant.

Coming on top of revelations that the Defense Department has a 400-page list of hundreds of groups and protests that it considered possible "threats" to national security--including a Quaker group and student antiwar demonstrations against military recruitment held on at least eight college campuses--it's clear that the Bush administration has taken its attack on our civil liberties to unprecedented new levels.

This week, the administration is stepping up its drive to win reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act--the post-September 11 law that set much of the attack on our rights in motion.

From the first days after September 11, the government set out to expand the its ability to spy, detain and prosecute--and now the Bush administration wants measures in the law made permanent.

Under the Patriot Act, it is legal for the government to:

-- Look at your private medical records, what you buy, what you study and what books you read. Section 215 of the Patriot Act gives the FBI and other law enforcement agencies access to a broad variety of personal records without having to have probable cause or obtain a search warrant. It also makes it a crime for those who are compelled to turn over records--be they business owners, doctors, librarians, etc.--to reveal that they have been forced to give up the information.

-- Search your home without telling you. Under Section 213, the government can conduct secret "sneak and peek" searches of an individual's home or office. They can take pictures, seize property and even collect DNA samples--without ever having to tell the individual that a warrant was issued.

-- Label protesters who engage in civil disobedience as "domestic terrorists." Under Section 802 of the Patriot Act, "domestic terrorism" is defined as any act that is "dangerous to human life," involves a violation of any state or federal law, and is intended to influence government policy. That definition is so broad that it could apply to protesters at an antiwar march where there are minor acts of vandalism, or a civil disobedience action where protesters resist arrest.

-- Seize business and financial records. Section 505 allows the government to use National Security Letters (NSLs) to seize business and financial records--as well as, in some instances, the membership lists of organizations that provide Internet service. In November, the Washington Post revealed that the FBI now issues more than 30,000 National Security Letters each year--up from a few hundred a year before the Patriot Act.

-- Detain immigrants for a week without charges--and indefinitely on minor charges. Section 412 allows the attorney general to "certify" that an immigrant or non-citizen is a terrorist or a threat to national security--without having to show probable cause or charge or convict them of any specific crime. That person can then be detained for a week without being charged with any crime. They can be detained longer, as long as the government can find an excuse like a minor immigration violation to charge them with. And if a suspect in jail on an immigration violation cannot be deported, they can be detained indefinitely--as long as the attorney general certifies every six months that national security is at stake.

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THE BUSH administration insists that all this is protecting Americans. Bush recently told reporters that, in passing the Patriot Act in 2001, "Members from both parties came together and said we will give those on the front line of protecting America the tools necessary to protect American citizens, and at the same time, guard the civil liberties of our citizens."

But most of those charged under the Patriot Act have no ties to terrorism. And ask Portland, Ore., lawyer and practicing Muslim Brandon Mayfield if he feels like his civil liberties were "guarded."

In 2004, Mayfield was arrested as a material witness in connection with the March 2004 bombings in Madrid, Spain, that killed 191 people. The government used Section 218 of the Patriot Act to carry out a secret search of Mayfield's home without a warrant. The FBI entered Mayfield's home and copied four computer drives, digitally photographed documents, seized 10 DNA samples and took approximately 335 digital photographs.

But Brandon Mayfield was completely innocent--and spent more than two weeks in jail before the FBI finally figured out he was misidentified.

Incredibly, a report issued by the Justice Department earlier this month claims that Mayfield's arrest, the invasion of his home and the smearing of his name had nothing to do with the government's use of the Patriot Act--but rather with "overconfidence" in fingerprinting techniques.

Brandon Mayfield isn't the only innocent victim.

In 2004, Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan had his visa to teach at the University of Notre Dame revoked under Section 411 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to bar anyone from the country who has or will use a "position of endorse or espouse terrorist activity." Ramadan has condemned terrorism, but because he is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government's war on Palestinians--and the U.S. policies that support it--that was enough to get him barred from the U.S.

In 2003, Sami al-Hussayen, a student at the University of Idaho, was arrested and prosecuted under Section 805 of the Patriot Act, which makes it a crime to lend "expert advice and assistance" to a terrorist organization. His crime? While working as the Internet administrator for the Islamic Assembly of North America, he listed links on the site to speeches by prominent Muslim scholars--including some that allegedly advocated criminal activity and suicide operations.

A former CIA official testifying on behalf of al-Hussayen said the sites linked to the student appeared to be analytical and religious in nature, not terrorist tools--and after an eight week trial, a jury found al-Hussayen not guilty on terrorism charges. But the Feds continued to pursue immigration charges against the student. In all, al-Hussayen spent 17 months in an Idaho jail, before finally agreeing to "voluntary" deportation.

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SIXTEEN OF the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions are scheduled to expire February 3, and the Bush administration is pushing hard to force Congress to pass a new version of the bill making them permanent.

A mix of liberal Democrats and some hard-line conservatives managed to temporarily hold up renewal of the bill in December. But before counting on Democrats to protect our rights, it should be remembered that they voted overwhelmingly for the Patriot Act the first time around--and party leaders are desperate to avoid being painted as "soft" on terrorism.

As Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) recently explained to the New York Times, it's unfair for Republicans to attack Democrats for questioning the worst excesses of the Patriot Act--since, said Kerry, "We all support surveillance."

With "opposition" like this within Washington, we'll need a struggle at the grassroots to fight for our rights.

Muslims bear the brunt of abuses

WHILE THE Patriot Act is an attack on all of our rights, Arabs and Muslims have borne the brunt of the abuses committed in the name of "fighting terrorism."

A 2003 Justice Department report into the treatment of detainees found systematic abuse carried out by as many as 20 guards at a Brooklyn detention center. Among the problems detailed were "unnecessary and inappropriate use of strip searches and banging on detainees' cell doors excessively while they were trying to sleep."

"We did not find evidence that the detainees were brutally beaten, but we found evidence some officers slammed and bounced detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time," the report said.

As Socialist Worker went to press, six detainees--all of whom spent weeks or months in jail and were eventually cleared of any connection to terrorism before being deported anyway--were returning temporarily to the U.S. to begin depositions in a lawsuit brought against government officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Despite the government's own report detailing abuses inside the detention center, the Justice Department refuses to admit any wrongdoing, claiming that September 11 attacks created "special factors" that override detainees' right to sue for damages for any constitutional violation

But as Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) lawyer Rachel Meeropol, who represents two of the former detainees, told the New York Times, "The post-9/11 domestic immigration sweeps were the first example of the Bush administration's willingness to ignore the law and hold people outside the judicial system. The kind of torture, interrogation and arbitrary detention that we now associate with Guantánamo and secret CIA facilities really started right here, in Brooklyn."

Will they outlaw peaceful protests?

PROTESTING AGAINST the Bush administration could become a lot more difficult if the latest version of the Patriot Act passes without revision.

Currently, the Secret Service is authorized to charge suspects with breaching security or disruptive behavior at National Special Security Events--but only if the president or another person under the protection of the service is in attendance.

Last month, it was revealed that under the latest version of the Act, protesters could be tossed into jail for even less. The new bill would allow the Secret Service to cordon off areas, enforce exclusion zones and jail people for disruptive behavior at any event deemed a "special event of national significance," even if no one under Secret Service protection were scheduled to speak or attend.

Judging from news reports, the Secret Service's definition of "disruptive behavior" includes anyone expressing an opinion contrary to the president's.

In 2004, for example, Nicole and Jeff Rank were arrested by the Secret Service in Charleston, W.Va.--for wearing T-shirts that read "Love America, Hate Bush" and "Regime change starts at home" to the president's July 4 appearance. Last March, the Secret Service expelled two Denver students from a "town hall" forum on Social Security reform with President Bush--because they had an antiwar bumper sticker on their car.

If the new provision is passed, people like these could be arrested at any "special events of national significance," which, according to the Washington Post, could include everything from political conventions to the Olympics.

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