We're All Suspects

As our civil liberties disappear, where are the Democrats?

On October 11, 2001, the Senate was about to vote on the USA Patriot Act. Democratic majority leader Tom Daschle hastily called a caucus of his troops and ordered them not to vote for an amendment expected to come from their colleague, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Daschle knew what Feingold was planning, and if Democrats joined him, Bush would brand the party as unforgivably unpatriotic so soon after 9/11.

Feingold took the floor and said: "There is no doubt that if we lived in a police state, it would be easier to catch terrorists. If we lived in a country where police were allowed to search your home at anytime for any reason; if we lived in a country where the government is entitled to open your mail, eavesdrop on your phone conversations, or intercept your e-mail conversations; and if we lived in a country where people could be held in jail indefinitely...based on mere suspicion that they are up to no good, the government would probably discover and arrest more terrorists... But that probably would not be a country in which we would want to live...."

Recognize any of these changes in your country today? Despite Feingold's words, the Patriot Act passed the Senate 98 to 1.

This year, just before the August recess, enough cowardly Democrats gave Bush and Cheney the votes they needed to pass the Protect America Act of 2007, radically expanding the warrantless surveillance of telephones calls and e-mails when Americans communicate with people outside the country or are called from abroad by someone "reasonably" linked to terrorism.

Because of this cave-in by the Democrats, writes Jacob Sullum of The Washington Times, "Americans will have no legally enforceable privacy rights that protect the content of their international communications."

Six months after the president's signing of the Protect America Act, Congress will be able to review and change it. We'll see how tough Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi—leaders even hollower than Tom Daschle—turn out to be. With national elections nearing, will the Democrats again succumb to the fear of being charged with abandoning national security?

Whatever cosmetic changes may be made to the Protect America Act, Russ Feingold was ominously prophetic in 2001. We now live in a country where, as I've been reporting here since then, our rights and liberties under the Constitution are even more eviscerated than he could have imagined. And this administration is using the time it has left to make this more of a nation ruled by fear rather than by law, a nation that would spur Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Thomas Paine, and George Washington—if only they were still here—to ignite another American Revolution.

Before exploring the Bush administration's increasingly aggressive agenda for ways to make millions more of us into suspects under surveillance, I first have to focus on how effectively the president has conditioned many Americans to accept that living in a surveillance society is quite normal.

There certainly is antiwar resistance to the wasteland we have created in much of Iraq and Afghanistan, but the state of our own civil liberties is well down the list of acutely troubling issues in the presidential campaign.

And a creeping complacency has now been startlingly revealed by one of our leading historians, a man who, in the past, has often demonstrated how close this country has come to losing its constitutional soul in times of war and fear of internal (as well as external) enemies.

Chicago University law professor Geoffrey Stone's still widely available book—Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime, from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (Norton)—was greeted in 2004 as a powerful warning of how hard it's been for Americans to regain their freedoms once they've been traded for "security."

But on August 19, an opinion piece by Stone appeared in the Financial Times with the headline "U.S. Civil Liberties Remain Strong." (It also appeared the next day on the faculty blog of the University of Chicago Law School, uchicagolaw.typepad.com.)

Although Stone begins by admonishing the Democrats who supported the president's deep-sixing of our telephone and e-mail privacy in the Protect America Act, he then reassures us:

"Nonetheless, the overall state of civil liberties in the U.S., viewed in historical perspective, is surprisingly strong. There are no internment camps for American Muslims, no suspensions of habeas corpus for American citizens, no laws prohibiting criticism of the war in Iraq."

How have we been so fortunate—despite the ceaselessly subversive work of Dick Cheney and the other members of the president's Praetorian Guard of national-security commanders?

Stone credits, as he should, the ACLU for its resistance, through litigation and the critically valuable use of the Freedom of Information Act to release documents you weren't supposed to see. (And there are many other resourceful, deep-throated canaries in the coal mine, including the persistent Bill of Rights Committees throughout the country.)

But for all that the ACLU and others have exposed, we could be a lot worse off were it not for the fact, Stone astonishingly continues, that "Americans have come to value civil liberties as part of their romance with America. Although we are still too willing to make unwise compromises of individual liberties in order to protect (or try to protect) national security, we are much more sensitive to these issues than we have ever been." (Emphasis added.)

Gee whiz! How did I miss the hordes of messages to Congress from citizens outraged by the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which—as I and other reporters have detailed—is one of the most poisonous pieces of legislation against civil-liberties laws in our history? And this year, were there any marches, rallies, or even ads protesting the Protect America Act or Bush's executive order providing even more special powers for the CIA?

As for "internment camps," on August 8, 2002, The Wall Street Journal (in its news, not its editorial, pages) broke the first story that internment camps were already being planned. (For more, see my book, The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance, Seven Stories Press.)

Last year, buried in the 591-page Defense Appropriations Act—as civil- liberties watchdog John Whitehead and others have reported—the Republican-controlled 109th Congress, doubtless at the Bush/Cheney administration's behest, inserted a provision that (in Whitehead's words) allows the president "to declare martial law and use the military as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any 'other condition' " that undermines public order. (Emphasis added.)

How much due process would these military-police roundups of suspected internal enemies give those prisoners? And how long will that military power be in effect domestically?

Has Geoffrey Stone forgotten James Madison's warning: "A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty"?

Next week: more of how "strong" our civil liberties are in 2007.

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