Patriot Act’s infringement on rights concerns citizens, immigrants

The FBI is counting mosques, and law enforcement is asking about reading habits at hundreds of libraries.

There are secret lists governing who can board airplanes, secret surveillance of e-mail and the Internet and new warrants allowing the government to secretly search homes, bank records and medical files.

Immigrants nationwide have been jailed indefinitely over visa violations that in the past would have been ignored, and about 13,000 face deportation. Others have languished in cells while officials lied to their families about where they were.

For countless American citizens and immigrant residents, the echoes of Sept. 11, 2001, continue to resound in what critics contend is a loss of basic civil liberties stemming from the government’s anti-terrorism campaign.

“The government is treating us like we are all terrorists,” said Kourosh Gholamshahi, 36, a California resident and Iranian immigrant who spent nearly a year in jail over a deportation order he ignored. “We are not all the same. … What kind of Constitution is this? What kind of democracy is this?”

Liberal and conservative critics, alike, say it’s a democracy that has gone too far in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks by giving the federal government enormous new powers and scope in the areas of law enforcement and surveillance.

Supporters insist that same democracy is protecting its citizens’ rights, as well as their lives, by defending the nation from new terrorist attacks.

Earlier this month, on the eve of the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush said Congress still has not gone far enough and called for even greater federal powers in terrorism probes. And Attorney General John Ashcroft has embarked on a national tour to shore up support for tough new laws passed in the wake of the attacks.

“These tools let us connect the dots; they enable us to save innocent lives,” Ashcroft said in July.

The dispute has sparked more than 160 communities to vote to oppose some of the powers authorized under the Patriot Act, the toughest new law being used in the government’s war on terrorism.

From Washington, D.C., to Alaska, Ashcroft and other federal officials have tried to allay fears that the government is imperiling civil liberties.

But those efforts are challenged by the way some cases are being handled.

Consider these instances:

• Two peace activists were held for hours before being released at San Francisco Inter-national Airport because their names apparently popped up on a secret government “no fly” list. Both are suing the federal government, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a bid to gain more information about such lists.

• Jose Padilla, a Chicago man alleged to have plotted a “dirty bomb” attack in the United States, was detained in May 2002 and declared an enemy combatant but never charged with a crime. Denied access to an attorney, he was turned over to military authorities and is being held at the Charleston Naval Weapons Station brig.

• A public defender surfing the Web on a library computer in Santa Fe, N.M., was detained by Secret Service agents after someone apparently overhears a political debate in which he suggests that “Bush is out of control.” His experience led to legislative hearings in New Mexico over the Patriot Act and government secrecy.

The Justice Department’s inspector general issued a scathing report in April on the handling of 762 detainees held after Sept. 11 under suspicion of having terrorist ties. It found “significant problems” with the treatment of some and uncovered evidence that family members and lawyers were not told where the men were taken.

The Justice Department rejected much of the criticism, saying in a rebuttal statement its “actions are fully within the law and necessary to protect the American people.”

Ashcroft has made the same arguments repeatedly.

“The Patriot Act took tools which were available against a number of other criminal activities and extended them to the fight against terrorism,” Ashcroft said.

To date, federal courts have given the government wide leeway in its pursuit of suspected terrorists, ruling it may keep secret the names of the detained immigrants.

Courts similarly have said immigration hearings involving such suspects may be held in secret.

The Bush administration has also created a new category allowing U.S. citizens — like Padilla — to be classified as “enemy combatants” who can be held without charges and denied access to lawyers.

Reminders of witch hunts

The use of such tactics has stunned many legal experts, who say it resembles the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s.

“If you arrest a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, he has rights,” said Kevin Johnson, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of California-Davis law school. “He has a right to counsel that’s guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The Justice Department and the courts disagree.

Since the Patriot Act passed, the Justice Department said it has ordered reviews of 4,500 intelligence files to determine whether terrorism charges would be filed, and courts have issued 18,000 subpoenas and search warrants for anti-terrorism investigations.

Authorities have detained nearly 50 people since the Sept. 11 attacks and secretly held them as “material witnesses” for federal grand juries, the Justice Department said. Almost all were released within 90 days, the department reported. A few, including “20th hijacker” Zac-arias Moussaoui, were eventually charged with a crime.

The government say such actions affect only a small number of Americans, but many citizens are concerned about how far things will go in the name of security.

The backlash has been building steadily since the passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001. Among the provisions opponents find most troubling:

• The FBI has broader authority to seek information on citizens’ reading habits at libraries and bookstores, as well as financial information and medical records without having “probable cause.” Instead, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, a secret body that oversees investigations against terrorism suspects, must deem information being sought as relevant in a criminal probe.

• Some search warrants can be kept secret for 90 days, allowing the government to go into someone’s home or business without the target knowing it.

• In some cases, people can be jailed for providing aid to groups the government links to terrorism..

The secrecy extends beyond the Patriot Act, particularly when it comes to air travel. Some people trying to board airplanes have been detained without explanation, many apparently because their names are similar to those on secret government watch lists.

Yet details of how someone ends up on such a list — or how many people are on it — remain secret.

How much freedom to give up?

Some are asking whether they’re being forced to give up too many personal freedoms.

“Does this sound like the United States, or does this sound like 1950s Russia?” asked Tim Armstrong, a 56-year-old Viet-nam War veteran and ad salesman for a radio station in Juneau, Alaska, where citizens are banding together against the federal government’s new efforts.

It’s a question being asked by liberals and conservatives.

“This whole thing scares me,” said Robert Corbin, a former president of the National Rifle Association. “I believe very strongly in the Bill of Rights, and I don’t want anybody to screw around with it.”

Corbin noted his group, widely viewed as conservative, has found common ground with the ACLU over the Patriot Act.

“I’m just afraid that the Patriot Act is like the war on drugs, where people are willing to give up their freedoms for security,” he said. “And I’m not.”

Ashcroft’s defenders say he’s been unfairly portrayed as a paranoid crusader.

“John Ashcroft is a committed conservative,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “He’s a principled man. He doesn’t drink or smoke. He doesn’t dance. He is a great target to be the butt of jokes by the media. … I think John Ashcroft is just a victim of a liberal frenzy.”

Graham said conservatives in Washington are just as concerned as others about the government going too far. To date, Graham said he’s seen no evidence of that.

One month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ashcroft asked Congress for new powers to help combat future terrorism. The request came in the form of a bill titled “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropri-ate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism,” dubbed the USA Patriot Act.

With the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon still smoking, it was a hard pitch to resist.

“We had a better version the night before the act came to the floor,” said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C. But before that version could be voted on, it was rewritten overnight by the administration.”

Only one senator — Russ Feingold, D-Wis. — and 66 House members voted against it.

Spratt was not among them.

“In the aftermath of Sept. 11, it was clear there were a number of security lapses,” said York’s Spratt. “Most members were in agreement that we needed something.”

Some House and Senate members who voted for the Patriot Act, including Spratt, had misgivings but reasoned it was palatable because much of the act automatically expires at the end of 2005.

In recent months, however, a tougher follow-up version has been drafted, and at least one influential lawmaker has suggested making the Patriot Act permanent.

For now, the focus of new anti-terrorism efforts largely has been on immigrants, although one provision of the unofficial “Patriot Act II” would give the government the right to strip some Americans of their citizenship.

That proposal has further outraged critics.

“When the government says, ‘We’re sacrificing their rights, you American citizens need not worry,’ the promise is illusory,” said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and author of the new book, “Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedoms in the War on Terrorism.”

“When you look at history, in virtually every crisis, the first targets are foreigners. The government argues that the threat emanates from abroad … But, eventually, government officials grow accustomed to exercising these authorities and seek out ways to extend them to U.S. citizens.”

Sam Stanton and Emily Bazar, staff writers for The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, and Herald Assistant City Editor Jason Cato contributed to this report.

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The Herald, USA
Sep. 28, 2003

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday September 29, 2003.
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