Civil Liberties Trampled as Government uses Pretext of ‘War on Terrorism’

By DAVID BERNT

 

Attorney General John Ashcroft waved a copy of an al Qaida training manual before members of the Senate Judicial Committee on Dec. 6. Ashcroft used the book to thunder home his defense of the Bush administration’s recent attacks on civil liberties.

“To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” Ashcroft told the senators, “My message is this: Your tactics only aid the terrorists.”

Using the tragedy of Sept. 11 as a pretext, the government has pushed through provisions that are such a clear violation of our rights that even some rabid pro-war ideologues, such as right-wing commentator William Safire, have felt the need to express doubts or criticisms.

Almost all of the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, however, have indicated only minimum discomfort with the measures-pointing out, for example, that Congress was bypassed when Bush issued recent executive orders expanding police powers in this country.

To get around this sticky fact, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) urged her fellow senators on Dec. 6 to draft an “authorizing” bill that would give the Justice Department carte blanche to do whatever it considers necessary to pursue its actions against “terrorism.”

Bush calls for military tribunals

On Nov. 13, President Bush signed an order for the use of closed military tribunals for any foreigners who the government determines to be terrorist suspects. These tribunals would require less criteria for submitted evidence than in civil courts, allowing the most circumstantial evidence to be used against defendants.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in declaring its opposition to the tribunals, pointed out: “The use of military tribunals would apparently authorize secret trials without the requirement of a unanimous verdict and would limit a defendant’s opportunities to confront the evidence against him and choose his own lawyer. What’s worse, these important legal protections would be removed in a situation where defendants may very well be facing the death penalty.”

Ashcroft informed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 6 that Bush’s directive to establish military tribunals was to be considered a “military order by the commander in chief.” The tribunals will thus be placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense rather than under the civil legal system.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Prisons changed its regulations to allow government officials to listen in on conversations between defendants and their legal counsels. This new regulation clearly violates the Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which provides the right to assistance of counsel.

Ashcroft defended this measure when he testified before the senators on Dec. 6. He claimed that the new regulations would act to prevent prisoners from sneaking written messages to their attorneys to be distributed later to supporters outside the prison.

The House and Senate joined in the attack on civil liberties when, with the blessing of nearly all Democrats and Republicans, they passed the “USA Patriot Act” on Oct. 25. The new law effectively suspends habeas corpus for all non-citizen residents.

The Patriot Act reduces judicial supervision of federal telephone and internet surveillance, expands the government’s ability to conduct searches without notifying the party being searched, and gives the attorney general and the secretary of state the power to designate domestic organizations as terrorists and to deport any non-citizen who is a member of such a group.

It allows the FBI to search sensitive business records of alleged terrorists without providing any evidence that any crime has been committed, and allows the government to engage in large scale investigations of American citizens as well as non-citizens.

The effect of the Patriot Act is most clearly shown in its provisions allowing the round-up and detention of immigrants, done almost entirely in secret. The attorney general has the power to deport non-citizens based on his having “reasonable grounds to believe” that they are an (unspecified) risk to national security.

Moreover, non-citizens can be detained for up to seven days without any charges having been filed against them, and they can be held indefinitely if the attorney general believes they are a threat to “the national interest.”

According to a recent Justice Department decision, even if two judges (a trial judge and an appellate judge) rule that a defendant must be freed, the attorney general has the right to ignore their rulings and keep the accused in detention.

Over 1200 immigrants detained

The passing of the USA Patriot Act came at the heels of a mass round-up of non-citizens by the Department of Justice. To date, some 1200 people, almost all either Arab and Muslim, have been detained on the pretext that they might be terrorists. Many were denied the right to contact attorneys for weeks after they had been jailed.

Ashcroft stated on Dec. 6 that 110 remain in the custody of the Justice Department and 563 are held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Under pressure from civil liberties advocates, Ashcroft released the names of 93 of the detained as well as limited information concerning an additional 548 detained people-information that previously had remained entirely secret. He announced that the Justice Department was seeking some 5000 more Arabs and Muslims who had entered the country recently, in order to question them.

The Justice Department has been forced to admit that practically all of the immigrants detained have no connection with terrorist actions. The New York Times reported on Nov. 29 that a “review of documents and interviews with law enforcement officials and defense lawyers shows that the detentions have yielded a collection of fairly routine immigrant violators, speeders and petty criminals who got caught up in an aggressive dragnet.”

The Times goes on to say, “Of the 104 people charged with federal crimes … almost all were accused of crimes completely unrelated to terrorism.”

The arbitrary detentions, and their complete disconnection from actual terrorist actions, exposes the real meaning behind the attack on civil liberties. Democratic rights are being taken away by the government to insure greater control over working people.

These liberties were won in struggle and are rightly desired by working people to insure that they are not victimized by the state. With the fear created by the Sept. 11 attacks and the accompanying hysteria whipped up by the media and politicians, the government has created a pretext to do away with rights that under normal conditions would cause great uproar among working people.

Already, it is clear that political activists are being targeted. On Nov. 2, Nancy Oden, a coordinator for the Green Party USA, which has come out in opposition to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, was detained by the military at the airport in Bangor, Maine.

Oden was about to board a plane to Chicago, where she was scheduled to speak about anti-war activity, when she was stopped. According to Oden, “an official told me that my name had been flagged in a computer” that indicated she was a potential terrorist threat.

The attorney general has proposed easing restrictions on the FBI’s monitoring of political and religious organizations. The regulations, imposed on the FBI in the 1970s, were a result of public outrage when details of the FBI’s Cointelpro program became known.

Cointelpro operatives spied on civil rights, anti-war, socialist, and other political groups in order to disrupt their activities. The FBI constantly targeted the Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican nationalists, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Workers Party among others.

Many of the recent changes in laws and regulations are merely symbolic, as the U.S. government often disregards the law in order to attack political opponents, workers, and the oppressed. However, the ruling rich and their government hope now to legitimize a crackdown on their opponents, using the “war on terrorism” as an excuse. All who value our civil liberties must stand up and demand these rights be protected and advanced.