Political observers often have wondered why Democrats, especially liberals, didn’t put up more of a fight against the Patriot Act, which passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote. Many thought it was because Dems didn’t have the guts to stand up, and were afraid both to look unpatriotic and to risk defeat at the hands of the mighty Bush. But there may be another reason: The Patriot Act enhances major incursions into civil liberties that were sponsored by Bill Clinton in 1994 and 1996, including the setting up of secret courts and the launch of mass deportations.
The 1996 Antiterrorism Act gave the secretary of state the authority to decide which organizations are terrorist. Anyone supporting such an organization for humanitarian reasons is liable to criminal prosecution. And, of course, under Clinton the FBI was allowed to continue building files on people and organizations based not on the likelihood of their committing a crime, but on grounds that an FBI agent thought they should be investigated. This act, directed at international terrorism, was pushed through Congress in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, which the government had no reason to believe was caused by foreign terrorists. These measures were opposed not by rank-and-file Democrats, but by the ACLU, per usual, and conservatives who feared they might be the targets of the next investigation.
Two examples of what Clinton, and now Attorney General John Ashcroft, have brought the nation in the hunt for terrorists:
First, federal grand juries have become potential investigative arms—not just of the Justice Department—but of the CIA, formerly banned from operating within the U.S. Under the Patriot Act, testimony before a grand jury can now be sent to the intelligence agencies, which under various treaties can share it with spook agencies of foreign governments. Let’s say a U.S. attorney wants to prosecute a businessman with a Middle Eastern passport because he has an informant who says the businessman was dealing with Saddam’s Iraq. No one knows who the informant is. It could be a competitor, a jealous suitor, an irate neighbor, anybody. But the prosecutor, using the FBI or other investigative agencies, can then conduct surveillance, secretly tape the suspect’s conversations or telephone calls, and take hearsay testimony. Since a criminal indictment is already two-thirds of the way up the river for most people, the grand jury in effect functions as a secret court. And if the information is shared with spooks around the world, in a very real sense they get to determine the verdict.
Second, anti-terrorism laws are being used to prosecute those with no interest in taking down the American republic. As part of North Carolina’s own little war on terror, Watauga County DA Jerry Wilson focused on the state’s antiterrorism laws to hammer people accused of producing methamphetamines. Ordinarily a meth producer might get six months, but under the new code, Wilson can send a convicted producer to jail for anywhere from 12 years to life. In the first case of this sort, Wilson is charging Martin Dwayne Miller, 24, on two counts of making a nuclear or chemical weapon in connection with the manufacture of methamphetamines. To get a connection between a nuke and meth, Wilson refers to the toxic nature of the chemicals involved in making the drug, noting that firemen and police officers responding to cases involving meth risk lung damage and other serious injury.
“I understand the title of the statute is antiterrorism, but the statute is much more broad than that,” he said. “There’s nothing in the statute that requires any organized terrorist effort. There’s nothing in the statute that requires that these chemicals be used as a weapon.”
Wilson may well not be far off the mark, for federal law classifies as a weapon of mass destruction, among other things, a hand grenade. “When you define the term so broadly, then it could be used to mean any number of things, including possessing the chemicals used to make methamphetamines,” Graham Boyd, the ACLU’s director of drug-policy litigation, told the Voice. “You end up shifting the power to prosecutors and sheriffs to define weapons of mass destruction according to what they think they are.”
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John