Civil Liberties: Collateral Damage of War
The U.S.A. Act of 2001, passed by the Senate on Oct. 11, allows U.S. authorities to indefinitely detain noncitizens without due process and expands the government's ability to invade law-abiding citizens' privacy in the name of combatting terrorism through wiretapping and email surveillance with hardly any supervision from a judge.
Illustration by Sev Ucock
The Act's definition of "terrorism" is a loose one. As reported on The American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) website (www.aclu.org), "Under Section 803 of the USA Act, a person commits the crime of domestic terrorism if within the U.S. they engage in activity that involves acts dangerous to human life that violate the laws of the United States or any State and appear to be intended: (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping."
The latter point of this section reflects America's vigilant attitude after Sept. 11, but such a broad definition of terrorism could be construed to include organizations not popular with the government. Antiglobalization protesters, lobby groups, aggressive environmental groups, and other parties expressing dissent towards the government are left vulnerable to potential email surveillance and wiretapping.
The ACLU also points out, "Under the U.S.A. Act, once the government decides that conduct is domestic terrorism, law enforcement agents have the authority to charge anyone who provides assistance to that person, even if the assistance is an act as minor as providing lodging. They would have the authority to wiretap the home of anyone who is providing assistance. Also, the government could prosecute the person who provided their home under a new crime of harboring a terrorist or for providing material support to terrorists."
The government's expanded ability to indefinitely hold noncitizens is bad news for the 700 plus arrested during the sweeping terrorism investigations. The bulk of those arrested are not material witnesses to the terrorist attacks (meaning they are not suspected to have significant information regarding the attacks), but rather are held on various immigration charges. These charges range from being in the country on an expired visa to possessing false documents.
Reports, from family and news sources, indicate that these people are sometimes thrown into cells with violent criminals and are often unaware of when they will be able to leave.
On Oct. 16, Judy Peres of the Chicago Tribune reported, "According to civil liberties attorneys, many of the detainees have had no contact with their families and only limited contact with their lawyers. There are no public records indicating what charges they are being held on or who represents them."
Peres also quotes Harvey Grossman, legal director of the Illinois chapter of the ACLU, having said, "There's been nothing as massive as this since the day after Pearl Harbor, when they rounded up 700 Japanese immigrants and held them incommunicado and without charges for a protracted period."
The U.S. is also currently detaining 10 foreigners arrested July 14 at a Greenpeace demonstration against the national missile defense system at Vandenberg Air Force base in California. One of the arrested is identified as Steve Morgan, a freelance photographer from the United Kindgom. The Guardian, a U.K.-based newspaper, reports, "Steve Morgan, as a journalist, is facing the same [felony] charges as the activists. His wife, Heather, said: 'I think it's interesting that the Taliban seem able to release Yvonne Ridley [British reporter taken into custody by the Taliban in Afghanistan] who was arrested by them [for] doing her job, but the United States still won't let Steve go although he was just doing his job.'" Although the arrests of these noncitizens occurred before the terrorist attacks, the U.S.A. Act of 2001 further jeopardizes their likelihood of receiving a fair trial and dampens any hopes for a fast return home.
The Act, which passed 96-1 (Sen. Russ Feingold [D-WI] was alone in his dissent), attracted little attention from the press. Versions of this revised bill include the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, also neglected by the mainstream media. Fair.org, a media watchdog group, reported as of Sept. 27, "Despite the magnitude of the changes the bill [Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001] proposes, a search of the Lexis-Nexis database of news transcripts shows that neither CBS Evening News nor NBC Nightly News has aired a single report exploring the potential impact of the legislation. ABC World News Tonight has aired one." This lack of coverage allowed the U.S.A. Act of 2001 to slip through Congress without much protest.
The solo vote against a bill which seriously infringes on civil liberties is evidence of a politically unified country. The current climate of the U.S. makes it more difficult for various organizations critical of government policy to conduct their campaigns. The Guardian explained, "Environmental groups that had opposed Bush's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska are also now aware that their task will be harder. They fear that their protests may now be overridden in the current surge of national political unity and that, in an unstable world, those politicians who would have opposed drilling will now agree to it."
Similarly, those in Congress who voted for the bill may have done so due to the fear that constituents would scoff at politicians not supporting Attorney General John Ashcroft in a time of national crisis. If any senator were to vote against the legislation, he or she would surely regret it during reelection campaigns. Perhaps the nation's representatives and senators need to hear from the people they stand for to know that any violations of civil liberties, in the name of terrorism or otherwise, will not be tolerated.
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