U.S. Civil Rights Threatened
by Caroline Fredrickson*
Constitutional rights and civil liberties - or denial of them - shape people's daily lives. Freedom to express opinions, worship or not in the religion of choice, travel from place to place within the United States, and vote for leaders of civil society are among rights that make the United States what it is.
When we don't actively protect these rights, they erode. And they erode in a climate of fear.
Such a climate has emerged in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. U.S. government leaders have preyed on people's desire for safety using the specter of terrorism to reshape federal agencies, policies and programs. To stop terrorism, we're told there must be a balance between safety and security that requires we sacrifice some liberty. It is a false choice. We can be both safe and free.
Too many of the steps taken since Sept. 11, 2001, give us a false sense of security and create threats to civil liberties. Without substantive corrections, meaningful oversight, and more transparency and disclosure, the United States will surrender its Bill of Rights to fear.
The Bush administration has too often disregarded the U.S. Constitution, adopting policies and engaging in activities that have eroded basic freedoms. For example, for five years, the National Security Agency spied on U.S. residents without warrants, which is illegal. In January 2007, the administration appealed an August 2006 federal district court ruling that said the National Security Agency program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and is unconstitutional.
In January 2007, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would begin to get Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approval for warrants. At the same time, President George W. Bush continued to claim he has authority to engage in eavesdropping without warrants and could resume doing so at any time.
It is dangerous to assume civil and political rights are secure within the United States.
A secret Pentagon database obtained by NBC News revealed nearly four dozen peaceful political gatherings - most protesting military recruitment or the war in Iraq - were among more than 1,500 incidents that have been reported as suspicious across the United States. Subsequent news reports revealed a secretive component of the U.S. Department of Defense - the Counterintelligence Field Activity Agency - had been accumulating and maintaining information about domestic organizations' peaceful political activities. The Counterintelligence Field Activity Agency, whose size and budget are classified, had been directed to track potential terrorist threats against the Department of Defense through reports known as Threat and Local Observation Notices.
This notification program was designed in 2003 to permit civilians and military personnel to report on suspicious activities and terrorist threats near defense installations. Excerpts of notices published by NBC News revealed the Department of Defense had strayed from its intended mission, tracking anti-war protests that occurred far from military installations and failing to remove reports of demonstrations deemed by the Department of Defense itself not to be credible as threats. Department of Defense officials ordered a review of the notice database to determine whether information relating to individuals cleared of any suspicion had remained on file. Regulations published decades earlier prohibit retention of information about non-threatening U.S. people for more than 90 days.
The Pentagon's misuse of the database comes in the wider context of increased government surveillance of U.S. citizens. With the help of phone companies, the National Security Agency has been tapping phones and reading e-mails without warrants. The FBI has gathered information about peace activists and recruited confidential informants inside groups like Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
These actions are part of a broad pattern of the executive branch using national security as an excuse for encroaching on privacy and free-speech rights without adequate oversight. One hundred eighty six protest events in the United States ended up in the Pentagon threat database and remained there longer than allowed by law.
Real ID Act
The Real ID Act, a national identification-card system that would federalize and standardize state drivers' licenses, was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2005 as part of a tsunami-relief and military-appropriations bill. It will require every person in the country to have a Real ID-compliant identification document to fly on commercial airlines, enter government buildings, open bank accounts and more.
The act exposes people's private identification information, creating a one-stop shopping mall for identity thieves. States recognize Real ID is an unfunded federal mandate that violates constitutional rights and threatens people's privacy and security. The act does not prevent terrorists from obtaining identification necessary to assimilate into U.S. society.
Because some people living in the United States don't have source documents, like birth certificates, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged it needs an exemption allowing individuals to bypass state verification and document requirements. This will also allow identity thieves and terrorists to exploit loopholes in the system to obtain Real IDs.
Congress is taking credit for improving national security while authorizing only $4 million to states to cover a $23 billion cost. Congress has work to do to fix the identification law and other laws that were passed in haste with a lack of attention to the U.S. Constitution.
The USA Patriot Act
Congress passed the USA Patriot Act just 45 days after Sept. 11, 2001. In early 2006, Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act without fixing the law's fundamental flaws.
For example, the act expanded the National Security Letter provision that authorizes the FBI to demand records without prior court approval. Anyone who receives a National Security Letter is gagged from telling anyone about it.
The letters are issued by the FBI, not a judge, to obtain telephone, computer, credit and banking information. The only statutory requirement limiting FBI use of the letters is that they must be "relevant" to an investigation.
On the one-year anniversary of the Patriot Act's reauthorization, the Justice Department's inspector general released a report finding that the FBI had abused its authority to issue the letters. Of 143,074 requests for information from 2003-2005, only one resulted in a terror-related conviction. Approximately half of the letters targeted U.S. people. Forty-three confirmed criminal referrals were made to prosecutors from the FBI after it obtained information through the letters. Nineteen involved fraud, 17 were immigration-related and 17 were for money laundering.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has challenged the National Security Letter provision in court with two cases - one involving an Internet service provider, the second a group of librarians. In both cases, judges ruled the gags were unconstitutional.
In March 2006 after the two court rulings, Congress amended the provision. The amendment fixes some problems but makes the gag provision more oppressive. The ACLU has gone back to court to challenge the constitutionality of the amended law.
The debate surrounding reauthorization of the Patriot Act has been strong with concern for civil liberties at the heart of the debate. Robust and continuing oversight, both within the executive branch and by Congress, are essential. Oversight and disclosure by the government on the use of the Patriot Act have remained inadequate. Congress is re-examining aspects of the act and working to close loopholes.
Having liberty, safety
To continue to protect civil and political rights, various groups are forming coalitions to petition Congress for reform.
In 2006, the Traditional Values Coalition, National Right to Life, the Free Speech Coalition, American Target Advertising, the American Conservative Union and the ACLU urged senators to oppose the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007. Section 220 of the bill would have stifled constitutionally protected free-speech activity. Advocacy organizations and citizen activists could have found their communications to the general public about policy matters redefined as lobbying, and therefore subject to registration and strict quarterly reporting. Failure to register and report could have resulted in civil and criminal sanctions.
In March 2007, the conservative Cato Institute joined the ACLU in a news teleconference to criticize the draft regulations for implementation of the Real ID Act released by the Department of Homeland Security.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is committed to ensuring the United States does not engage in torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of anyone. The campaign believes torture violates basic human dignity, saying it degrades everyone involved - policymakers, perpetrators and victims - and contradicts U.S. ideals. The campaign considers policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment as morally intolerable.
Defenders of liberty need to defend rights now, not once they're gone. For example, if the government restricts freedom of speech, it becomes much more difficult to defend rights against further violations because there is no provision to express opinions in public.
It's happened before. In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act to suppress criticism against involvement in World War I. People were convicted of conspiracy for distributing anti-war pamphlets.
The U.S. Constitution, the cornerstone of U.S. political and social thought, lays out protections for the rights necessary for a democracy to flourish. The Bill of Rights is not a "Bill of Suggestions" only applicable for certain members of the community. Those rights are what enable us to be safe and free.
Benjamin Franklin said: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."