Orange Alert for Civil Liberties




L

ast
October, Senator Russell Feingold asked the Department of Justice
to “describe what efforts are being made within the department
to broaden the powers of the USA Patriot Act.” He never received
a response, but now the American people have the answer. 


A
leaked copy of the Bush administration’s draft Domestic Security
Enhancement Act of 2003 (DSEA) indicates that even after the 2001
Patriot Act expanded federal police powers while curtailing privacy
rights, the Bush administration thinks Americans are still too free
and government too small. Like the Patriot Act, the massive Security
Act draft contains a few measures that could help catch a terrorist,
surrounded by many that propel us toward a secretive police state. 


For
starters, the DSEA would revoke key elements of the Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA), enacted to prevent government from keeping secrets from
the public unless a legitimate security concern exists. Currently,
FOIA gives us the right to know if a missing person is in the custody
of any government agency. But under DSEA, anyone—even U.S.
citizens—could be detained secretly in connection with any
“terrorist” investigation, a term lacking legal definition. 


Does
abandoning this bedrock principle of freedom make us safer? Not
likely. The Freedom of Information Act already allows the government
to withhold such information if disclosure could hamper investigation
of other suspects or events. Under the government veil of secrecy
established last year, we have no legal right to know who among
the 1,000-plus people secretly detained by the Bush administration
since September 11 was charged with a terror-related crime. 


Chemical
and nuclear corporations may be among the few entities cheering
the DSEA. The Act would grant a long-standing dream of chemical
corporations: stripping citizens of their right to know about threats
posed by toxic chemicals and the risks of spills or explosions in
our communities. Like many Bush administration proposals, this draft
smells like a case of waiting for the right opportunity to provide
cover for pre-existing agendas. 


When
asked about the document, a Department of Justice spokesperson claimed
that it represented “staff discussions.” But the DSEA
clearly is ready for introduction any time (online at ReclaimDemocracy.org)—perhaps
while the public is distracted by an attack on Iraq. 


The
DSEA contains many proposals disturbing for immigrants, including
increased punishments for violations of the Immigration and Nationality
Act. Perhaps the most alarming proposal (Section 501) would give
the Justice Department power to revoke a person’s permanent
resident alien status or even U.S. citizenship for participating
in or “providing material support to…a terrorist organization.” 


Since
the 2001 Patriot Act redefined “terrorist activity” so
broadly that minor vandalism could qualify, donating to a nonprofit
organization that, unknown to you, is on Ash- croft’s hit list
could end your life as an American citizen and resident. 


Section
312 would revoke laws that prohibit police from spying on citizens
without substantive evidence of criminal activity. This effectively
reauthorizes the CIA and FBI to engage in domestic terrorism against
activist groups—practices that became illegal after the well-documented
COINTELPRO program abuses of the 1960s ruined the lives of many
citizen activists. 


Denver
area activists don’t need to be warned. Last year, they learned
that Denver police had created “spy files” on more than
3,000 activists and 200 civic organizations for their organizing
activities or participation in rallies. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning
Quaker group, the American Friends Service Committee, is among the
groups labeled “criminal extremist” by Denver police.


This
would be laughable if the news hadn’t prompted many calls to
targeted groups by people asking to have their names removed from
databases. Imagine the damage to human rights organizations so labeled
at the national level.


These
threats are just a few among dozens of proposals within the DSEA.
Thanks to a brave soul at the Justice Department, we have a chance
to examine this assault on civil liberties before it is thrown on
us amid the fervor of attacking Iraq or terrorist threats.







Jeff
Milchen directs ReclaimDemocracy.org, a nonprofit organization devoted
to reviving democracy and restoring citizen authority over corporations.