Things We Lost in the Fire

While the Ruins of the World Trade Center Smoldered, the Bush Administration Launched an Assault on the Constitution

The USA Patriot Act allows the attorney general to function as prosecutor, judge, and jury when it comes to incarcerating and deporting noncitizens. All he has to do is say he has "reasonable grounds to believe" that they have engaged in "terrorist" activity, and he can throw them in the clinker for a week before issuing any charges. Such detainees have no opportunity to mount a defense against their classification as "terrorist"—nor even to know why the attorney general has so branded them. What's more, the detainees cannot be released from detention—even if they prevail in immigration hearings—until the AG lifts the designation.

That's not so easy: The act defines terrorism broadly as the use of a "weapon or dangerous device (other than for mere personal monetary gain)" and expands "terrorist activity" to include providing material or other support to a "terrorist organization," even if that support goes to legitimate, nonviolent efforts by a political group that may also have a military wing. Under this Orwellian twisting of terminology, grabbing a bottle in the midst of a barroom brawl could be deemed terrorism. So could sending schoolbooks to Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, should the old warlords fall out of favor with the U.S. Merely associating with activists from such groups could be grounds for deportation.

Of course, Ashcroft has gone even further without having to invoke the USA Patriot Act. He simply changed the regulations that govern INS detention. By declaration, he expanded from 24 to 48 hours the period the INS can detain someone without charges, and added that in times of emergency, an unspecified "reasonable" period of time was permissible, giving agents leave to incarcerate first and then dig up minor immigration violations as justification.

The End of Privacy

A man approaches a librarian to ask for help finding a text. "These books are no longer available," she replies, in a pinched, Peter Lorre-like voice. "May I have your name please?" A couple of suited thugs take the library patron away.

The scene comes from one of a series of patriotic public service announcements produced for the Fourth of July by the Ad Council, which feature creepy Big Brother scenarios followed by the legend "What If America Weren't America? Freedom: Appreciate It, Cherish It, Protect It." Trouble is, the library segment is no fantasy.

As far as she knows, there aren't yet any goons stalking the stacks, says Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the American Library Association. But under the USA Patriot Act, law enforcement officials can force librarians (and booksellers) to hand over records of who checked out what books, and what Web sites they visited without the high bar of "probable cause" required for searches under the Fourth Amendment. Librarians, furthermore, must not tell anyone such records have been requested—not even the patron being investigated. If they refuse to fork over the records, they can go to jail.

"What books you read gets very close to what thoughts you think," says Sheketoff. "This is very dangerous."

It's not the only way Ashcroft has found to bore into people's privacy. The USA Patriot Act authorizes, among other intrusive instruments, roving wiretaps and "sneak-and-peak searches"—covert snooping in your home or office that you might not even get to know about for 90 days. In the meantime, the FBI could plant a "Magic Lantern" on your computer, recording all your keystrokes for your snoop's next visit.

Meanwhile, when he unilaterally lifted restraints on the FBI, Ashcroft reopened the door for COINTELPRO—counterintelligence program—the massive FBI spying operation against law-abiding civil rights, anti-war, and other activists run by J. Edgar Hoover from the mid '50s to the early '70s. In 1976, after a year-long investigation, the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, chaired by Frank Church, blasted COINTELPRO for methods "indisputably degrading to a free society" in "a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association." Though Church promised that "never again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers a threat to the established order," COINTELPRO is, for all intents and purposes, back with a vengeance.

Quashing Dissent

Those activists old enough to remember the snitches in their midst in the '70s have long suspected that something akin to COINTELPRO never entirely went away. Acting in the open, they have not much worried. "We've just always assumed they were watching us," says Father Roy Bourgeois, 63, founder of the Schools of the Americas Watch, which organizes a protest every November at Fort Bening, where U.S. officers have trained death squad generals and torturers from Latin America.

What did surprise Bourgeois was that this past November, the school sought an injunction against the annual nonviolent demonstration of some 10,000 protesters. "They said it was not appropriate during the war on terrorism," Bourgeois recalls, "and people started to say that we were siding with Al Qaeda by exercising our rights to assembly and speech. We said, we too want to close down terrorist training camps, and we should start with the one in our own backyard."

« Previous Page
Next Page »