PATRIOT Act takes US to McCarthyism, and beyondSince the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration and Congress have enacted a series of Executive Orders, regulations, and laws that have already seriously undermined civil liberties.
By Anne Weills
Since the September 11 attacks at the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Bush Administration, along with its Justice Department and Congress, have enacted a series of Executive Orders, regulations, and laws that have already seriously undermined civil liberties. United States Attorney General, John Ashcroft, hand picked by right-wing conservatives and confirmed by the Senate without much fight by Democrats, has made it clear he has no compunction about deeply limiting our constitutional rights. Within weeks of September 11th, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act on October 24, 2001 with virtually no public hearing or debate.
Under the guise of national security, Americans lost the checks and balances intended by our Constitution separating our government into three distinct branches. By conferring vast and unchecked powers to the executive branch, the balance of power has shifted wildly in the direction of a right-wing government, catered to by a conservative Congress and a conservative, if not a reactionary Supreme Court. Bushs imperial executive branch, by using Executive Orders and emergency interim agency regulations as its tools of choice for combating terrorism, has deliberately chosen methodologies that are largely outside the purview of both the legislature and the judiciary.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the governments actions has been its attack on the Bill of Rights, the very cornerstone of our American democracy. The War on Terror has seriously compromised the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights of citizens and non-citizens alike. The following examples describe a number of ways in which the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act have been implemented in the pursuit of domestic order and minimal political dissent.
In conjunction with the terrorism investigation, as many as 1,200 individuals were detained for an extended period without any criminal charge lodged against them, violating the 6th Amendment right to a speedy and public trial.
The government has denied detainees access to legal representation; and has conducted its hearings in secret, in some cases denying the very existence of such hearings. Despite repeated legal requests and litigation, the Bush Administration has resisted requests for information regarding the detainees by loved ones, lawyers and the press.
The United States actions with regard to prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay naval station have been in direct violation of the Geneva Convention. These prisoners are being held as unlawful combatants, a term that has no meaning in international law. The U.S. Governments disregard for international law can only serve to encourage other nations to act likewise and undermine the very War on Terrorism it seeks to fight.
An order allowing law enforcement agents to monitor attorney-client conversations undermines the principle that all criminal defendants are entitled to a fair and competent defense.
The Justice Department has limited the discretion of immigration judges in ways that threaten the objectivity and independence of the immigration court system. Furthermore, by mandating the use of military tribunals for those accused of terrorism, the Executive Branch has deprived the judiciary of its role in deciding criminal cases, and has made the same branch of Government both the prosecutor and the judge.
The Bush Administrations actions have targeted individuals of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent and those of the Muslim faith in violation of U.S. laws prohibiting governmental discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.
Key provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act and relaxed guidelines for FBI investigations threaten the right to dissent by raising the possibility of harassment by investigators, by permitting searches on little or no evidence, and by creating the risk of felony prosecution for minor criminal violations. The Act minimizes the role of a judge in allowing wiretapping, Internet surveillance, and access to personal financial and student records of citizens and non-citizens.
Greater extralegal powers have been provided to these agencies by the implementation of 11 Executive Orders, 10 new agency interim regulations, and 2 final regulations implemented by the Justice Department, which go into effect without any Congressional input. For instance, an interim regulation issued on September 20th expanded the power of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to detain immigrants without charge.
We must resist the White Houses implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act. On December 15, 2002, the Bill of Rights was 211 years old. As a document, it has weathered many storms but this is the fiercest one ever. It is a particularly challenging time because of the unfortunate combination of an ideologically right-wing U.S. Government and the sophisticated technologies available to them to implement the USA PATRIOT Act and other repressive legislation. This all seems pretty scary, and it is. We all have to play whatever role we can carve out for ourselves to fight for our rights and for more transparency in government. Secrecy is their power and they know it. The fight for real security at home is for all of us to transform our present government so that it uses our nations resources for the benefit of the people and environment of the entire world. This is the only way to real peace and international security.
Anne Weills is a Civil Rights Lawyer. She is Secretary of the Bay Area National Lawyers Guild and member of NLG since 1985.
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