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Casualties of war. (Comment).

Oh, it was too easy for a nation to turn its back on 1,200 detainees, mostly Muslim, rounded up since September 11 and held in secret. The terrorist attack was so shocking that many Americans were able to condone this violation of due process, thinking perhaps that the government would stop there. But now the government of the people has turned its attention to the rest of the people, and the war on terrorism goes from murky to muddy.

Welcome to the era of Total Information Awareness and other tomfoolery.

We're now at a time of perhaps unprecedented spying and secrecy. Richard Nixon could only dream of such powers. More than a year after the events of September 11, 2001, we are seeing the best of America--the Constitution and Bill of Rights--shredded by President George Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. To comprehend this breathtaking assault, we need to look back at how it all began.

The Ashcroft confirmation hearing was a bitter fight for the soul of the Justice Department. Amidst the cantankerous rhetoric and blow-hard posturing from both sides of the narrow fence, there was some plainspoken eloquence from Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois.

"The Attorney General, more than any other Cabinet officer, is entrusted with protecting the civil rights of Americans," Durbin said. "We know from our history that defending those rights can often be controversial and unpopular. I find no evidence in the public career or voting record of Senator Ashcroft that he has ever risked any political capital to defend the rights of those who suffer in our society from prejudice and discrimination."

How right Durbin was.

Since 9/11, our top law enforcement officer has gone to great lengths to rewrite and dismantle civil liberties in this country. For all the Attorney General's singing about patriotism and love of country, his odious record demonstrates that he does not respect the fundamental tenets of our democracy.

The opening act in this wretched tragedy started two nights after the 9/11 attack when the Senate swiftly voted, by voice, to approve an attachment to an appropriations bill that made it easier for the government to wiretap the computers of terrorism suspects without having to go through due process. That was just the beginning of what would eventually become the USA Patriot Act, an omnibus anti-terrorism law that was supposed to pacify Americans so they would return to shopping malls and sporting events.

The USA Patriot Act is full of lax language that gives the government expansive powers to peep into the lives of Americans they deem dissenters and subversives. This is the kind of law a nation gets when 78 percent of its citizens, in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, say they're willing to sacrifice rights to fight against extremists. It's simply one of the most regressive acts in American history.

Even the definition of a terrorist in the act is flimsy and transparent. For instance, you're a domestic terrorist if you're breaking a law at the same time that you're doing something that appears "to be intended to influence the policy of government by intimidation." Under this definition, Martin Luther King was a domestic terrorist in Birmingham.

The act lets the FBI and other law enforcement agents enter your home when you're not there, ransack your files, use your computer and search your emails, and place a "magic lantern" on your computer to record your every keystroke. Then they can leave without telling you they were there.

In addition, the Patriot Act lets law enforcement find out what books you're buying at stores or checking out at libraries. And it then gags the bookstores and libraries so they can't tell anyone that they've had to fork over your name.

But this lunacy goes beyond reading material. A story in the December 10 edition of The New York Times reports that last summer the FBI, concerned about a terrorist attack involving scuba divers, "set out to identify every person who had taken diving lessons in the previous three years."

According to the Times, hundreds of dive shops and organizations willingly turned over the information.

"But just as the effort was wrapping up in July, the FBI ran into a two-man revolt," the Times says. "The owners of the Reef Seekers Dive Company in Beverly Hills, California, balked at turning over the records of their clients ... even when officials came back with a subpoena asking for `any and all documented and other records relating to all noncertified divers and referrals from July 1, 1999, through July 16, 2002.'"

The owners say they had several reasons to deny the FBI's request, primarily because terrorists would need to have far more sophisticated training than a few scuba lessons. The owners said they also worried the information would be passed on to other agencies. Some people called to say they hoped the shop would be blown up by terrorists.

"If we are going to decide as a country that because of our worry about terrorism that we are willing to give up our basic privacy, we need an open and full debate on whether we want to make such a fundamental change," Cindy Cohen, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Times. The foundation represented Reef Seekers.

At about the same time Congress was ratifying the Patriot Act, Ashcroft issued an edict saying that prosecutors could eavesdrop on prisoner-lawyer conversations. And he rewrote Justice Department policy to allow a return to Cointelpro.

Bush himself jumped in with his military tribunal order, which allows the Pentagon to nab any noncitizens anywhere in the world and try them in military courts with lower standards of evidence and with no appeals possible to any judge or court anywhere in the world.

Again, the Bush Administration sold this to the American people as a necessary protection against foreign terrorists and assured the citizenry that they would not be victimized by it.

But then came the designation of "enemy combatants" and the holding of two U.S. citizens--Jose Padilla and Yasser Hamdi--in military brigs. Neither was charged with a crime. Neither was allowed counsel.

Padilla, also known as Abdullah Al-Mujahir, an ex-Chicago gang member, is being held under suspicion of being an Al Qaeda operative who was allegedly researching how to detonate a radioactive bomb.

Hamdi was taken into custody in Afghanistan and was interrogated there by a military screening team.

Neither Padilla nor Hamdi has been allowed to meet with an attorney, much less appear before a judge to contest the detention. The Administration claims it can hold both of them (and others it may deem "enemy combatants" down the road) for as long as the war on terrorism goes on.

"This seems to me the classic case for habeas corpus," said Georgetown University law professor Mark Tushnet, who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times. "They don't get to say, `This is a bad guy, and we can do with him what we want.'"

Federal District Court Judge Robert G. Doumar agreed. He heard a challenge by a public defender in Hamdi's case. "This case appears to be the first in American jurisprudence where an American citizen has been held incommunicado and subjected to an indefinite detention in the continental United States without charges, without any findings by a military tribunal, and without access to a lawyer," Judge Doumar wrote. When the government tried to defend Hamdi's detention, the judge asked the Attorney General's lawyer, "So, the Constitution doesn't apply to Mr. Hamdi?"

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of Padilla and Hamdi. On December 4, U.S. District Judge Michael Mukasey gave civil libertarians a respite when he ruled that alleged "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla can have his status as an "enemy combatant" reviewed in a federal court and that he must have access to counsel in the interim.

"This ruling is a crucial rejection of the Bush Administration's claim of almost unbridled power to unilaterally detain American citizens and hold them indefinitely and incommunicado," said Lucas Guttentag, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrant Rights Project, after the ruling. "The decision is a critical first step to providing a check on the government's use of the enemy combatant designation."

But not all courts have seen the light. On November 18, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, established in 1978 to oversee domestic spying activities, gave the government even broader powers to snoop and sniff about the lives of ordinary Americans. What makes this new proclamation ghastly is that the court's proceedings are held in secret, its members are hand-picked by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and the government is the only entity allowed to appear before it. Sounds like some ludicrous Stalinist-era kangaroo court, but it's right here in the good ol' U.S.A.

"The decision gives the government a green light to tear down the wall that has long existed between officials conducting surveillance on suspected foreign agents and criminal prosecutors investigating crimes," says a New York Times editorial from November 19. "Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced that he intends to use it to sharply increase the number of domestic wiretaps, and that he will add lawyers at the FBI and at federal prosecutors' offices around the country to hurry the process along."

The Bush Administration has constructed a repugnant parallel legal system for terrorism in which suspects, according to The Washington Post, could be "investigated, jailed, interrogated, tried, and punished without conventional legal protections."

The Post reports the new system includes indefinite detention for those--like Padilla and Hamdi--who are designated "enemy combatants." And it also includes a radically expanded use of "material witness" warrants, wiretaps, and searches.

Administration officials told The Washington Post that this parallel system is meant to be used selectively, "but is needed because terrorism is a form of war as well as a form of crime, and it must not only be punished after incidents occur, but also prevented and disrupted through the gathering of timely intelligence."

This is the biggest power grab since Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer conducted his communist hunts under Woodrow Wilson!

The government wishes not to be disturbed in this war against terrorism. The government wishes not to be accountable to anyone, least of all the citizens it says it wishes to protect. Ashcroft's attitude is simple: If the government abuses some people in this fight, so be it. It's a war, and the casualties of a few are outweighed by the protection of the many.

It is this attitude that reduces the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to collateral damage.
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Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Fear mongering. (Letters to the Editor).
Next Article:The eyes have it. (Graphic Comment).

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