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USA Patriot Act: Destroying the Freedoms It Seeks to Protect

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By Rep. Maxine Waters

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I had the opportunity to question Attorney General John Ashcroft about the Patriot Act and related issues concerning the Justice Department’s use of its expanded law enforcement and intelligence-gathering powers against both immigrants and American citizens.

Many of the provisions of the act expire in 2005 and Congress must act to extend those provisions or make them permanent. Ashcroft urged the Congress to do that and more, asking lawmakers for even wider authority to detain suspected terrorists before trials and to seek the death penalty for terror-related crimes that result in death.

However, many of us in Congress are concerned about how the Patriot Act has been implemented thus far. Before we give them new powers, the Justice Department must justify what it has done with the powers Congress gave them following the September 11 attacks in 2001. Since that time, how the Justice Department used those powers has drawn harsh criticism from Inspector General Glenn Fine, who found significant problems about the way the September 11th detainees were treated.

Among the findings in the Inspector General’s report:

• The Justice Department detained immigrants for excessively long periods of time without being charged—an average of 80 days—before deporting them;

• Authorities demonstrated a “pattern of physical and verbal abuse,” with suspects being questioned under electric lights for 24-hour periods; and

• The FBI failed to adequately separate suspected terrorists from suspected illegal immigrants while being detained.

We are concerned about hundreds of immigrants who were detained after the horrific events of September 11. We were told that they were connected to terrorism, with the Attorney General asserting the United States deported 515 individuals he said were “linked to the September 11th terrorism investigation, but they were all released.

Many immigrants were indefinitely detained, denied release upon bond, denied the right to an attorney or even the right to make a telephone call, despite having no connection whatsoever to terrorist activities.

If these persons were truly involved in terrorism, why weren’t they incarcerated? Why weren’t they held in a maximum security prison in order to prevent them from engaging in further terrorist activity? The Attorney General offered no reasonable answers to these questions. The fact is, Ashcroft and the Justice Department deported these people not for terrorist acts, but for simple immigration violations. It seems that the Attorney General’s implementation of the Patriot Act to wage war on terrorism resulted in a war on immigrants.

I am also concerned about the Justice Department’s increased use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The Patriot Act softened the FISA statues for obtaining warrants and made it easier for the spies and police to share information obtained in wiretaps and searches. It gave the government more access to citizens’ library and museum records and the many serious privacy issues raised by the Department’s aggressive use of “biometric identifiers,” such as DNA samples, fingerprinting, and facial recognition technology, for use against immigrants and American citizens who have not been convicted of any crime.

Like all Americans, I was horrified by the events of the September 11th and want to see all of the perpetrators brought to justice. However, I do not believe the rights of American citizens should be abrogated to fight a war on terrorism.

The USA Patriot Act was passed in haste, with no hearings on the changes in foreign intelligence laws and the Attorney General has consistently failed to adequately explain the need for the extraordinary powers given the Justice Department in the Patriot Act. During his appearance before the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Ashcroft added nothing to justify how the Justice Department has used its new powers, yet he asked for those powers to be expanded. I believe such an expansion of power is unacceptable under the Constitution.

I don’t think we want to give more power to a government that seems to have abused the power it already has and, as we are now learning, has still failed in its intelligence-gathering responsibility. We want to be sure that our government, in the face of a war against terrorism or in the name of national security, doesn’t destroy the very rights and freedoms it seeks to protect.

I don’t think we want to give John Ashcroft and this government more authority for presumptive, pre-trial detention that requires defendants to prove their innocence before they even come to a trial, or more authority to profile people, to lock up people and to hold people for long periods of time without charges. If they can do that to those who are merely suspected of being threats to national security, they’re going to do it to us all.

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