The war at home
It's time to defend our liberties before Patriot Act II makes protest a crime
BY DAVID VALDES GREENWOOD
IT IS TIME for the peace movement to fight for freedom at home. While protesters chanted in the streets, the Bush administration used the cover of war in Iraq to design new encroachments on our civil liberties. In addition to backing a proposed bill that would permanently extend the Patriot Act, the Justice Department stealthily drafted the even harsher Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, commonly referred to as Patriot Act II. That document reveals a concerted strategy to restrict our rights of citizenship — our freedom of association, our rights to due process and appeal, even our access to information.
Our legislators have not yet tangibly demonstrated the will to stop this onslaught. Nor are they likely to do so unless they are made to believe that constituents will vote them out of office if they do not. To make that happen, the " peace " movement must become a protest movement, and increase its numbers across the political spectrum. There’s no time to waste; if protesters don’t act soon, they could face a time when our laws make such organizing not only difficult, but criminal.
Few Americans are even aware of the proposed Patriot Act II. This ignorance is unsurprising when you consider that its predecessor — which made sweeping changes in criminal investigation and judicial process — was passed in less than a month’s time, largely unexamined even by members of Congress.
Patriot Act II’s various provisions extend the life and the applicability of Patriot I, dramatically adding to the categories of people who may be investigated, curtailing due process and the right to appeal, and authorizing unlimited secrecy on the part of the government to spy on and detain citizens.
Nancy Murray, director of the Bill of Rights Education Project of the ACLU of Massachusetts, describes the proposals as " really quite frightening, both as a further erosion of our freedom, and as an indication of how this government operates: the desire for secrecy, the behind-the-scenes consolidation of power, and the emphasis on guilt by association. "
Among its provisions, Patriot Act II would allow for the classification of individual US citizens as " foreign powers, " opening them up to greater surveillance without requiring court orders. The word " terrorist " would legally encompass anyone who, regardless of his or her knowledge or intent, provides (undefined) " material support " to someone else defined as a terrorist (who may not even know that he or she has been so defined) for associating with a group defined as a terrorist organization, whether or not the group itself knows of its designation. The " terrorist " group need not have committed crimes; it need only be " likely to, " with no parameters establishing that likelihood.
This softness of definition is intentional, designed to provide unprecedented legal authorization for broad powers of pursuit. Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a not-for-profit research center focusing on privacy and civil liberties, says, " If passed as written, it becomes very easy, without knowledge or intent, to provide material support, which is where [the] Justice [Department] is getting its convictions already. " (Case in point: James Ujaama, an American Muslim activist, was initially charged with funding Al Qaeda and conspiring to set up a terrorist camp; according to the Justice Department press release, he pleaded guilty to donating computers and cash to a school under Taliban rule, and to traveling with someone who later attended a jihad training camp. All actual terrorism charges were dropped — or " superseded, " in Justice Department terms — but he will serve at least two years for his " material support. " )
Should you feel wrongly pursued, the law would make it impossible to do anything about it. Patriot II would allow agents to pursue you without court order or judicial approval, as long as they were acting in " good faith, " another undefined phrase. They would be able to share any of your personal information with any agency they deemed necessary in any jurisdiction, but those agencies could not share this information with you, nor could any person or institution tell you that it had been compelled to provide your records. (While it is currently illegal for institutions to reveal that investigative agencies have requested a person’s records, there is no specified penalty for doing so. Under Patriot II, however, simply telling you would merit a jail sentence.) From secret searches to phone taps to DNA testing, the government would have no obligation to explain its actions to you, to a court, or even to any sort of internal review.
This tactic reaches a brutal peak in the proposed approval of secret arrests. Should you be arrested, no charges need be made known to you and no admission made to anyone else — family, lawyers, or the press — that you have even been detained, until you are formally charged in court at a future time of the government’s choosing (with no set time limits). This abhorrent policy — the disappearing of citizens at the hands of their government, which amounts to a suspension of habeas corpus — has never been legal in our country; in fact, it is one of the things from which we claim to have gone to war to free the Iraqis.
Furthermore, American citizens could be stripped of citizenship simply for having provided the above-referenced " material support " to a designated individual terrorist or organization. EPIC’s Hoofnagle reminds us that such support could be as basic " as giving to a charity you like, " regardless of what you know about the money’s use. The bill claims that such action on your part indicates an implied willingness to relinquish citizenship, and as a newly unprotected noncitizen, you would no longer have the right to a hearing on the matter.
Consider the following example, which fully complies with the letter of the proposed law. You share an apartment with Hamad, a college student originally from Jordan. Hamad has often gone to pro-Palestinian rallies and events, including one co-sponsored by an organization that (unbeknownst to Hamad) has been declared terrorist for " likely " future actions. Hamad’s " association " with this group has led a zealous local agent to declare him a " foreign power " and " terrorist. " Through surveillance, agents learn that, while Hamad sought work last summer, you paid his rent — clear " material support " — making you a " terrorist " as well. The government revokes Hamad’s visa, forcibly repatriating him, and threatens to strip you of your citizenship. Without a lawyer and facing potentially open-ended detainment, you agree to plead guilty to providing material support, knowing that you are likely to serve jail time. The government claims another conviction against terror, and you pay the cost.
Because, in spirit, the law is directed at truly dangerous individuals, you might find that example exaggerated, but don’t be fooled: law is enforced according to its letter, not its spirit. As Hoofnagle notes, citing cases involving surveillance laws and Patriot Act I, " This Justice Department has proved it will stretch its interpretation of these laws to the limit. " Past perceptions of due process are of no comfort, because, as Murray says, " This bill throws out so much we’ve taken for granted for so long. "
THIS IS OUR moment, a test for citizens of all political leanings who claim to believe in constitutional guarantees. We must now stand up for them here at home — past the fatigue, past the rhetoric, and without compromise. Protesters must consciously reach beyond party lines to drive a simple message home to the voters and to Congress: defense of American freedoms is not a partisan issue. We cannot guarantee the values of any nation but our own, and our sense of freedom comes from the Constitution itself. Protest coalitions must become iron-willed defenders of these, our highest national aspirations. There may be little chance of piercing the myopia of the White House, but it is absolutely possible to establish a beachhead in the Capitol building and from there defend the Constitution.
Unfortunately, for the time being, the most prominent protest coalitions aren’t focusing much attention on domestic-legislative issues. International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) is planning a May conference on US policy in Iraq, but its lone domestic-policy action is a student petition against FBI profiling. Win Without War’s only current domestically focused actions are intended to show troop support (by highlighting the issues of veterans’ benefits and Gulf War illness).
MoveOn, which has mobilized millions via the Internet, has surprisingly little to say about Patriot Act II and domestic legislation. Founder Eli Pariser explains that MoveOn is watching the situation but has no related actions planned. He adds that MoveOn " will encourage our members to take action when there’s a leveraged opportunity to do so, " meaning " when a little energy goes a long way. " (This approach seems best suited to modest goals, such as MoveOn’s " urgent " April 18 call for volunteers to complain about CNN’s coverage of anti-occupation rallies in Iraq — action of admittedly limited effect, as the call itself noted it would " only be ‘news’ for a day or so. " )
This is not to say that MoveOn has no domestic agenda. According to Pariser, " Our biggest priority right now is showing Bush the door in 2004. I really think that for those of us who are concerned about America’s foreign policy, a new president may be the only way to permanently change it. "
Dennis Burke, executive director of Citizens for Participation in Political Action (CPPAX), says the 2004 election is also his group’s primary focus. He adds, " Making that commitment now, and planning for that work, is a great way to convert the anger and frustration felt over the Iraq situation into useful progress. We won’t have any real peace in the world, or any justice at home, until that happens. "
The proactive, long-range approach taken by MoveOn and CPPAX is both vitally necessary and paradoxically shortsighted. By failing to mobilize now to defend civil liberties in Congress, these organizations risk the passage of legislation that will affect our nation for years beyond 2004. In the 20 months before any new administration can take the reins, a lot of legislative damage can be done. Furthermore, these coalitions are missing an excellent opportunity to define the terms of the 2004 election as a vote for or against American freedoms.
The coalition most aware of this is United for Peace and Justice. While still protesting US policy in Iraq and watching future US global policy, co-chair Leslie Cagan says, the coalition is " trying to draw links between those issues and domestic issues like the attacks on civil liberties and shredding of the Constitution. " In May, she says, the group will host a national teach-in, the only upcoming event sponsored by any of the major coalitions to deal directly with legislative issues; slated for broadcast on cable and the Web, its goal is to educate citizens on how American foreign policy and the threat to domestic civil liberties are connected. Meanwhile, none of the peace coalitions has proposed any action solely dedicated to stopping Patriot Act II, the extension of Patriot I, or what ACLU’s Murray calls " piecemeal attempts to pass similar measures now. "
Before it is too late to respond, protest coalitions must take immediate and sustained action. Here are seven suggestions for how they can do so.
1) Form true coalitions. In order to preserve their ability to organize freely and make positive change, coalitions need to put differences aside and work together, using all their organizational power for a campaign with breadth and depth.
2) Learn marketing. The Bush administration has demonstrated the value of compact phrases ( " compassionate conservatism " ). It has also shown how to stay on message, repeating core arguments until they define the debate, and exhibit a discipline that the left needs to mimic.
3) Get out the word on American freedoms. With clarity of message — American freedoms are in danger — extensive e-mail and phone chains must send urgent updates on this issue, as far and wide as possible.
4) Tell Congress the word is out. Protest coalitions should let Congress know that word of particular legislation has gone out and, when possible, they should tell legislators how many people in their districts have been alerted. Then, individual citizens should contact their representatives, preferably by personal letter or phone call, making the stakes clear.
5) Make actions visible and sustained. While valuable, an e-mail campaign can be dismissed as a " one-off " event, and legislators often hide behind the claim that voters who do not visit, call, or write personal letters are not that invested. Protests must be personal and visible, with actions at the offices of legislators and public rallies, both urban and rural, and must continue after the first wave of passion has subsided.
6) Broaden the base. Protest coalitions must reach beyond their natural affinity groups to join forces with others who, as fellow Americans, have a stake in defending our freedoms. If left-heavy protest coalitions cannot see allies in fellow citizens of other political bents, the movement will likely stall.
7) Bring in the voters. Because forestalling one bill is unlikely to change the ideological agenda of those in power, it’s up to the citizenry to change who is in power at all levels. Coalitions must convince the unregistered that it is imperative that they register, and convince those who are registered that they must vote to protect their civil liberties.
If our strongest coalition leaders cannot yet see the urgency of responding to the legislative situation, it may be up to their members to drive the point home. Across the nation, millions have recently learned how make to their voices heard. They should do so now within the movement, for when we guarantee our own freedom, we are best able to defend the freedom of others.
David Valdes Greenwood may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org