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News ::
Suspicion and Surveillance In the Homeland
12 Nov 2001
Modified: 16 Nov 2001
As proposed "anti-terrorism" bills made their way through Congress before being signed into law as the USA Patriot Act by President Bush on October 26, senators and representatives made headlines nit-picking over which civil liberties to uphold and which to revoke. Did these debates represent the front lines of a struggle to preserve both the physical safety and political liberty of both the citizens and guests of the United States?
In a Greenwich Village auditorium on Friday, September 28, ominous words passed through the microphone: "We’re likely to experience more restrictions on our personal freedom than has ever been the case in our country."

This was not one of the many anti-war teach-ins which have occurred on campuses around the country since September 11. In fact the statements came from Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice of the US Supreme Court, as she addressed the groundbreaking of a new law school. Rather than words of warning over the erosion of personal freedoms cited by many in the wake of a world-wide war against terrorism, they were words of advice for a new future. O’Connor said the legal profession, along with the American people in general, needs to prepare itself for investigations of terrorist threats where "we will rely more on international rules of war than on our cherished constitutional standards for criminal prosecutions."

On Saturday November 10 both the Boston Globe and the New York Times ran editorials in which they questioned the wonton disregard for due process in the detention of about 1,100 persons since September 11. There has been eavesdropping into attorney-client conversations, in blatant disregard of the 6th Ammendment, and some reports of unduly harsh treatment during incarceration. Rather than pointing to any new standards resembling international rule of law being imposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Times editorial characterizes his treatment of those arrested since September 11 as simply "careless with the Constitution." Several organizations including the Center for National Security Studies, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The Nation magazine have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the names, nationalities, locations and charges filed on those detained. Additionally, three prominent Senators in the Judiciary Committee sent Ashcroft a letter asking for the same information and an explanation of the secrecy so far.

The USA Patriot Act
As proposed "anti-terrorism" bills made their way through Congress before being signed into law as the USA Patriot Act by President Bush on October 26, senators and representatives made headlines nit-picking over which civil liberties to uphold and which to revoke. Did these debates represent the front lines of a struggle to preserve both the physical safety and political liberty of both the citizens and guests of the United States? Or, were they rather merely a distraction from a more general pattern of eroding democratic principles both at home and around the world?

According to the ACLU, the USA Patriot Act continues an alarming trend of court-stripping, or removing the judiciary of its authority in times of crisis. "This law is based on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense of civil liberties," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU's Washington National Office.

"For immigrants," added Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director of the ACLU Washington Office, "the law is a dramatic setback that gives the government the authority to detain - indefinitely in some cases - non-citizens who are not terrorists on the basis of vague allegations of a risk to national security."

The populations which have been most affected by so-called attacks on civil liberties since the 1996 passage of three laws in the wake of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing have been America’s immigrants and prisoners. But all Americans may soon have to accept a much higher level of surveillance.

In its legislative analysis, the ACLU has said that among the USA Patriot Act's most troubling provisions are measures that:

o Allow for indefinite detention of non-citizens who are not terrorists on minor visa violations if they cannot be deported because they are stateless, their country of origin refuses to accept them or because they would face torture in their country of origin.

o Minimize judicial supervision of federal telephone and Internet surveillance by law enforcement authorities.

o Expand the ability of the government to conduct secret searches.

o Give the Attorney General and the Secretary of State the power to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations and deport any non-citizen who belongs to them.

o Grant the FBI broad access to sensitive business records about individuals
without having to show evidence of a crime.

o Lead to large-scale investigations of American citizens for "intelligence"
purposes.

According to the ACLU, many prominent political and social organizations which use civil disobedience could fall under the USA Act’s definition of terrorism. Anyone who had worked with a member of these organizations, or even so much as lodged one, could be arrested on federal terrorism charges, said one ACLU press release. "The ACLU does not oppose the criminal prosecution of people who commit acts of civil disobedience if those acts result in property damage or place people in danger," read the statement. "That type of behavior is already illegal and perpetrators of these crimes can be prosecuted and subjected to serious penalties. However, such crimes often are not terrorism.‚ The legislative response to terrorism should not turn ordinary citizens into terrorists."

Many of the most controversial attacks on civil liberties have been directed at students. Since the attacks, the FBI has been gathering information on students, both foreign and American, from confidential university records. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects students’ records by requiring the FBI to receive permission from the school and to notify the student whose records have been accessed. Student newspapers across the country have reported that many colleges have provided complete access to their records to the FBI, without notifying the students - a clear violation of this law. According to University of Pennsylvania’s Daily Pennsylvanian, the majority of the records turned over to the FBI have been those of Arab students.

Until October 26, a school had the option to comply with the FBI’s request for student files or to protect the privacy of its students. Now, according to the ACLU, the USA Patriot Act allows law enforcement agencies to get access to private student information based on a mere certification that the records are relevant to an investigation. Moreover, this certification cannot be challenged by a judge.

"It is an unnecessarily wide leeway," Corye Barbour, legislative director of the U.S. Student Association, a national student lobbying group, told UC-Berkley’s Daily Californian in a recent article. "We think that there is perfectly sufficient access now to student records. It’s a pretty egregious breach of student liberties."

Depending on the practices of individual schools, student records may reveal affiliations with on-campus organizations or publications, and even professors‚ notes on comments made in classes. President Bush’s pronouncement and repetition that the world is either "with us or with the terrorists" has raised fears that those who challenge the Bush administration’s tactics may be stigmatized as terrorist collaborators.

World-wide anti-terrorist measures

The US is far from being the only country dealing with these issues. In the European union, new anti-terror legislation has defined terrorist groups as any "structured organization... of more than two persons, acting in concert to commit terrorist offences." While these offenses include such traditional terrorist crimes as mass murder and hostage-taking, the list includes "urban violence," with a goal of "intimidating and seriously altering or destroying the political, economic or social structures of countries. The wording of the bill has elicited concern and fear from many European activist circles because the "serious" altering of economic and social structures is generally the stated goal of progressive social groups.

"The European Commission proposal on combating terrorism is either very badly drafted, or there is a deliberate attempt to broaden the concept of terrorism to cover protests, such as those in Gothenburg and Genoa, and what it calls ‘urban violence’‚" said Tony Bunyan, a leader of the European civil liberties group Statewatch, in a statement to the press. Urban violence, said Bunyan, is seen by many communities as a means of self-defense. "If [the proposal] is intended to slip in by the back door draconian measures to control political dissent it will only serve to undermine the very freedoms and democracies legislators say they are protecting"

The Italian government has stepped up its efforts to dismantle the "anti-globalization" movement in the wake of Sep. 11. According to the A-Infos news service, over 100 ecological groups, political offices, anarchist and other organizations, and community centers were raided in the week after the attacks. Computers and files were destroyed, and activists were brought in for interrogation.

Other countries have followed suit. The German government has proposed the creation of a new international paramilitary force to control anti-globalization protests. Australia has instituted new measures such as five-year prison sentences for refusing to answer terrorism-related questions, the secret surveillance of Australian citizens overseas, and complete criminal and civil immunity for investigators.

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Source Info
16 Nov 2001
This article was originally published in The Student Underground (www.thestudentunderground.org). Updated by Annette Ramos.