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Ashcroft Plan Would Further Curb Civil Liberties and By-pass Courts

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Washington (NNPA)

By George E. Curry
Editor in Chief
NNPA News Service

Less than two years after winning passage of sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that limited some civil liberties, the Justice Department is planning to submit new legislation that, if enacted, would further erode constitutional rights, bypass traditional checks and balances, criminalize some forms of legitimate political protest and expand the use of wiretaps, according to a detailed analysis of the bill by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Existence of the controversial legislation, called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, or Patriot Act II, was first disclosed several weeks ago by the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

The 120-page draft, dated January 9, 2003, and labeled, “CONFIDENTIAL – NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION,” was posted on the center’s Web site, publicintegrity.org.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bush Administration rushed through legislation called the USA Patriot Act. It was introduced less than a week after the violence, quickly passed by Congress and signed into law on Oct. 16.

Among other things, the USA Patriot Act gives the intelligence agencies and law enforcement officials broad new powers. An analysis by the Electronic Privacy Information Center says, “The act increases the ability of law enforcement agencies to authorize the installations of pen registers [caller ID-like devices that record incoming and outgoing phone numbers]…to authorize the installation of such devices to record all computer routing, addressing, and signaling information.”

The act also extends the government’s ability to gain access to personal financial information and student information without any suspicion of wrongdoing, simply by certifying that the information likely to be obtained is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Further, the act allows law enforcement agencies to share grand jury proceedings with local police and it allows law enforcement agencies to conduct a “secret search” of a person’s premise without a warrant or ever telling the person.

Now, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft is pushing for more intrusive government power.

“The USA Patriot Act undercut many traditional checks and balances on government power,” writes Timothy H. Edgar, the ACLU’s legislative counsel. “The new draft legislation threatens to fundamentally alter the constitutional protections that allow us as Americans to be safe and free... [it will] seriously erode the right of all persons to due process of law.”

According to the ACLU, the proposed legislation would remove checks on government power, diminish public accountability, increase secrecy and undermine fundamental constitutional rights by:

** Permitting the government, under certain circumstances, to bypass the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and conduct warrantless wiretaps and searches;

** Using an overly broad definition of terrorism that could cover protest tactics such as those used by Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion group; or protesters at Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, as a pretext for wiretapping;

** Expanding nationwide search warrants so that they will not be limited to terrorism investigations;

** Expanding government power by allowing the attorney general to issue administrative subpoenas without being reviewed by a judge;

** Giving the government access to credit reports without consent of the person or prior approval of a judge;

** Allowing the arrest of immigrants even if they are not suspected criminals;

** Stripping even native-born Americans of citizenship rights if they provide support to an organization officially labeled as terrorist by the U.S. government, even if they are supporting lawful activities of that group;

** Creating 15 new death penalties for broadly defined terrorism-related activity.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, calls the proposed bill “yet another egregious blow to our citizens’ civil liberties.”

The ACLU analysis, which appears on its Web site (www.aclu.org), cites the power the Justice Department already has by operating through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

“It meets in secret and never hears from anyone other than the government officials seeking its approval,” the ACLU says of the court. “If an order is denied, the government has the right to seek review of that denial in a special three-judge court of appeals, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. No one can appeal the approval of a surveillance order, as the target of the surveillance is not notified.”

In a move aimed at helping companies that pollute the environment, the bill would weaken the Clear Air Act. That law now forces corporations that use potentially dangerous chemicals to prepare a “worst case” scenario and make that information available to people who live in the affected communities and to environmental groups and other interested parties.

The proposed bill “severely restricts access to such information, limiting such access to reading rooms in which copies could not be made and notes could not be taken, and the excising from the reports such basic information as ‘the identity or location of any facility or any information from which the identity or location of the facility could be deduced,’” the analysis says.

The act also would prohibit witnesses appearing before grand juries from discussing their testimony with anyone except their lawyer. That would include a person who has been unfairly targeted by a grand jury or had his or her name tarnished by inaccurate news reports or leaks. Current grand jury secrecy applies only to jurors, prosecutors and courtroom employees.
The bill seeks to undo some court-ordered settlements.

After many big city police departments were discovered spying on innocent citizens exercising their constitutional rights during the 1960s, some settled lawsuits by signing consent decrees that prohibited such conduct in the future. If enacted, the Ashcroft proposal would invalidate all of those decrees.

“During the years the FBI illegally spied on individuals exercising their rights under the First Amendment, including such civil rights leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., resources were diverted and not a single instance of violence was prevented,” the ACLU report states. “Freeing local police to spy on innocent individuals is not likely to be any more productive.”

The report notes that police surveillance of innocent citizens did not end in the 1960s.
“Recently, citizens of Denver, Colorado, were shocked to learn that the Denver Police Department had kept approximately 3,048 illegal files on peaceful protest groups, including Amnesty International and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning American Friends Service Committee,” the report says.

“The file on the American Friends Service Committee labeled them a ‘criminal extremist’ group. The files pre-dated September 11, 2001, and were not collected as a response to the terrorist attacks.”

The Justice Department bill would increase the maximum fine from $10,000 to $50,000 if a person violates economic sanctions or trade embargoes. That would likely impact U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba each year and physicians who may want to help injured people in Iraq or some other unpopular country.

In a letter to Ashcroft earlier this month, Conyers and Representatives Robert C. Scott (D-Va.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), as former ranking members of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security and the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, objected to how the administration handled the proposed law.

“Your spokesperson, Barbara Comstock, claimed in a February 7 statement (attached) that the new draft bill was still in ‘internal deliberations’ within the Department and still being discussed at ‘staff levels’ and has not been ‘presented…to the White House,’” they wrote.

“This is blatantly false in several respects, yet a Department of Justice ‘Control Sheet’ (attached) plainly indicates that the bill was forwarded to the Speaker of the House and Vice President on January 10.”

The Black lawmakers continued, “The Department’s handling of this matter has only lent credence to suggestions that this Administration is intent on using the war on terrorism as a partisan political tool and the Justice Department is waiting to spring this bill on the Congress when the nation once again has endured a terrorist attack or is in the midst of war.”

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