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Covert Ops

The USA Patriot Act: Now Anyone Could be a Terrorist

Richard, an international student from Korea, is attending a fun but incredibly expensive school in the U.S. When his tuition bill comes in the mail for the fall semester he finds that his family in Korea does not have enough money to pay the $20,000 bill. Richard is out of luck. The school suspends his enrollment and his student visa is thereby invalidated. Richard decides to stay in the U.S. for a few months while his family sells everything they own so that he can continue his education. Let's say that Richard is also an open critic of U.S. foreign policy and that the government has been keeping an eye on him. This is when Richard's trouble really starts. Richard is arrested, charged with a minor visa violation, and labeled a threat to national security. He is to be deported to Korea, but Korea, wary of being charged with harboring terrorists, decides that it doesn't want him back. Richard is never heard from again and rots somewhere in a U.S. prison for the rest of his life.

This month I'm not going to write about the illegal "war on terror," I'm not going to talk about the 1,100 people of Middle Eastern descent who are being held by the FBI, denied the rights even a convicted mass-murderer would have. I'm not going to write about U.S. sponsored assassination and torture or even the possible invasion of Iraq that not even fellow warmonger England will support. I'm going to write about the so-called USA Patriot Act.

After years of civil libertarians suggesting that America has been moving towards a police state, Michael Ratner, in the November 20 edition of the journal Counterpunch, suggests that with the October 26 passage of the USA Patriot Act, we may have arrived at such a state. So what is the USA Patriot Act and how does it affect domestic civil liberties?

While the law was sold to the public as a way of giving law enforcement officials tools with which to fight terrorists, the provisions of the law are by no means limited in their scope to those suspected of terrorism. Perhaps more accurately everyone is now a suspected terrorist. The USA Patriot Act is a massive piece of legislation, so I will only highlight some of the changes that it makes to the current law.

The new law permits non-citizens to be deported based on any suspicion that the immigrant or non-citizen presents any threat to national security. Now, the second part to this is that someone who is stateless, someone whose home country refuses to have them back (perhaps as a result of being a suspected terrorist by the U.S.), or someone who is not deported because they would face torture in their home country can be detained indefinitely by U.S. authorities. This essentially gives the U.S. government the power to imprison people for an indefinite amount of time without having to convict them of a crime.

U.S. citizens aren't a whole lot better off. The law gives the FBI and CIA vast new power to use in spying on its own people. It allows the government to circumvent the requirements that must be met for wiretaps and surveillance in a criminal investigation. Previously, wiretaps and surveillance had to be authorized by a judge to surveill or tap a specific site, in the new police state environment this is essentially no longer the case. The FBI and CIA now "fill in the blank" on the sites that they intend to tap. This new power effectively dissolves important aspects of the Fourth Amendment which supports personal privacy.

The new law also dramatically expands the powers of government to conduct secret searches, not only in terrorist cases, but also in routine criminal investigations. Under the old law authorities were required to notify people when a search was being conducted, but there were some exceptions involving the gathering of electronic information where people were notified after the fact. Now the government can essentially sneak into your home while you're not there, conduct a search (or place a device on your computer for electronic monitoring), and notify you long after the fact.

The USA Patriot Act redefines "domestic terrorist" which could potentially open the door for members (and those who "harbor" members) of groups as diverse as Greenpeace, Operation Rescue and PETA to be labeled terrorists. It also gives law enforcement agencies easy access to personal financial data, highly personal student data and more.

As U.S. troops move into the last corners of Afghanistan, Dubya keeps reminding us that "this is just the beginning." I shudder to think how this could end.

Trevor Paglen can reached at www.paglen.com.

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