Every time the administration removes another strand of the liberties in the Bill of Rights, we are told it has to be done in the vital interest of our homeland’s security against the terrorists. But it is increasingly clear that we the citizens need to be secure from our government—not only where our liberties are concerned but also with regard to our health and our very lives.
An astonishing proposal in the Bush-Ashcroft draft of Patriot Act II—hardly reported, if at all, in much of the press—subverts the Clean Air Act so radically that residents in towns and cities around the country could be affected.
I learned about this further obsession with secrecy by the administration from a very detailed analysis of Patriot II by Tim Edgar of the American Civil Liberties Union. He points out that the Clean Air Act requires that “corporations that use potentially dangerous chemicals must prepare an analysis of consequences of the release of such chemicals to the surrounding communities.”
But under section 202 of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, Edgar writes, local residents will no longer have meaningful access to the analyses of the dangers to which they could be exposed. The information will be obtainable only in government reading rooms, Edgar adds, “in which copies could not be made and notes could not be taken.”
But this material will not include “such basic information as ‘the identity or location of any facility or any information from which the identity or location of the facility could be deduced.’ ”
It gets more bizarre. Only government officials will have full access to the analyses, including where these poisonous sites are, and thereby who owns them. But maybe somebody in such a facility, or in the government—like the anonymous member of Aschroft’s staff who leaked the draft of Patriot II—will feel compelled to leak this toxic information?
Forget it. The ACLU’s Edgar notes that “government whistle-blowers who reveal any information restricted under this section commit a criminal offense, even if their motivation was to protect the public from corporate wrongdoing or government neglect.”
So where’s the follow-up by the media? Will any of the elite Washington press corps ask Ari Fleischer about the president’s culpability if clueless citizens are hospitalized, or die, because of this government secrecy? Or, at one of the president’s own rare press conferences, will a reporter demand whether the president plans to attend any of the resulting funerals?
Occasionally, a shard of information that can impact the way we conduct our daily lives appears in the press. But again, where’s the follow-up? In the March 15 Daily News, there was an Associated Press report from Washington that more than 80 FBI planes and helicopters are being used to “track and collect intelligence on suspected terrorists and other criminals.” Note the key word, “suspected.”
Among the FBI’s aircraft, the AP story continues, “are several planes, known as Nightstalkers, equipped with infrared devices that allow agents to track people and vehicles in the dark.
“Other aircraft are outfitted with electronic surveillance equipment so agents can access listening devices placed in cars, in buildings, and even along streets, or listen to cell phone calls. . . . All 56 FBI field offices have access to aircraft. . . . [Legally,] no warrants are necessary for the FBI to track cars or people from the air.” The good news, as it were, is that the FBI does need warrants to monitor cell-phone calls, even if from a plane.
So where’s the follow-up by the media?
A February 27 warning from the ACLU, about which I’ve seen few follow-ups in the press, begins: “A secretive new system for conducting background checks on all airline passengers threatens to create a bureaucratic machine for destroying Americans’ privacy and a government blacklist that will harm innocent Americans.”
Starting in March, the ACLU said, the Transportation Security Agency—which already has a “no-fly list” of people who might have some kind of connection with some kind of terrorist, or who have read the wrong books or magazines—has been testing CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System).
CAPPS II is a relative of retired admiral John Poindexter’s omnivorous data-mining Total Information Awareness program at the Defense Department, which—though suspended for a time by Congress—is very much alive as Poindexter perfects the equipment for tracking the patterns of your daily existence.
There actually was a news conference at which the government proudly unveiled CAPPS II—anybody see any report of it in the press? According to the ACLU, “the government said that under the program Americans will be labeled as a ‘green,’ ‘yellow,’ or ‘red’ security risk. The red code would be reserved for those on terrorist watch lists,” and they will be referred to law enforcement and grounded.
“Far less clear,” the ACLU continues, “is who would get a yellow code in their file; those passengers would be subject to extra-intensive security screening.”
Says the ACLU’s Katie Corrigan: “This system threatens to create a permanent blacklisted underclass of Americans who cannot travel freely. . . . History suggests that the government will be capricious, unfair, and politically biased in deciding who to stamp as suspect. Anyone could get caught up in this system, with no way to get out.”
There is no guarantee, says the ACLU, that a yellow code in a person’s file would not be shared with “other government agencies at the federal, state, and local level, with intelligence agencies such as the CIA, and with foreign governments and international agencies—all of which could use those designations for many purposes, including employment decisions and the granting of government benefits.”
If you were so designated, there is no procedure by which you’d be able to see what alleged information put you on the list. The government, says the ACLU, will not reveal the criteria for selection, or how—at the airport—you can challenge your being under suspicion.
As the ACLU’s Barry Steinhardt points out: “CAPPS II won’t be limited to air transportation for very long. Nothing like it has ever been done in this country.” (Emphasis added.)
Agreeing with the ACLU’s alarm are the Christian Coalition, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, the American Conservative Union, and People for the American Way. Where’s the horde of Democrats running for the presidency?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 22, 2003