Civil Liberties at Stake


WASHINGTON, D.C., September 13—Just the notion that the U.S. would conduct a war against the Taliban is drawing protest from Pakistan, to which masses of destitute peasants would flee. In the end, it may well be more expedient for Congress to pass tougher, more xenophobic immigration measures.

Under the Clinton administration, Congress stiffened immigration laws, allowing the government to use secret evidence against immigrants and giving the feds authority to designate organizations as terrorist—which then permitted the government to freeze their assets. Congress also eroded the already limited right of aliens to due process under the law. If legislators want to tighten immigration laws even further, they can look to the draconian laws in Great Britain today.

There are two main anti-terrorist laws in Britain. The Official Secrets Act limits information conveyed by the press and provides for prosecution of the press if it violates the act by publishing government leaks. A second statute, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, allows authorities to detain suspects for long periods of time without a charge being laid against them or a warrant issued, says Joseph P. Tartaro, president of the Second Amendment Foundation. “They have more access to privacy information than we would have in this country,” he says. “Their counter-terrorism people operate under military rule rather than a civilian rule.”

The Prevention of Terrorism Act was established in 1974 after the IRA bombed Birmingham, England. It allows the government to turn away any foreign nationals whom it deems to be suspicious. The Brits used this law in 1997 to crush the Kurdish liberation groups operating in London by conducting a search for what the act describes as “evidence of contributions towards acts of terrorism.” A year later, no charges had been filed, but the group’s bank accounts had been frozen and funders scared off by visits from the police.

Additionally, the act sets in motion an extraordinary system for anyone the police decide might be a member of IRA split-offs. Anyone suspected of being a member of a banned organization could be sent to jail on the word of a senior police officer corroborated by the suspect’s silence.

In London the act has led to the arrest of people possessing leaflets thought to be subversive. Information gathered about them is sent to the governments of their home countries, even when they have fled those places to seek political asylum. As has happened in Turkey, home governments use the info to persecute the families still living there.

The act can also be used against people suspected of conspiring to break laws in the countries from which they have fled, i.e., speaking out against Saddam Hussein, for example.

In London the act was used chiefly to hunt down and silence Islamic groups that are fighting repressive regimes back home.