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With public attention riveted on the war in Iraq, politicians may be planning to launch a sneak attack against the American people.
Their weapon: Patriot II, a piece of legislation that would give the government frightening new powers, including the ability to make secret arrests, issue secret subpoenas, create a vast new DNA database and even strip Americans of their citizenship and deport them.
Formally called The Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 (DSEA), the legislation has been shrouded in secrecy, prompting civil liberties groups to fear the government has been waiting for an opportunity — such as war or another terrorist attack — to rush it through Congress. That’s exactly what happened with the USA Patriot Act, which passed the House and Senate with lightning speed just six weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Now with war raging in Iraq, history may be about to repeat itself.
Patriot II was drafted in secret earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Justice. When rumors of its existence started swirling around Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft denied it. When a leaked draft was published on the web page of the nonpartisan Center for the Public Interest on February 7, the Justice Department refused to comment.
But when the bombs began to fall on Baghdad in late March, Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo finally confirmed that such a measure would be introduced soon.
Yet if Patriot II is actually good for America, why all the secrecy? After all, politicians don’t normally lie about the existence of “good” programs; they brag about them. They resort to stealth and deception only when they’re doing something they’re ashamed of, such as creating pork barrel projects, lining their pockets with another congressional pay raise — and spawning more police state powers.
Simply put, this legislation would destroy some of the legal protections that make America different from totalitarian states like Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Iraq. For example, Patriot II would allow the government to arrest and detain people in secret, paving the way for the midnight knock on the door that terrorizes the population in police states.
In such countries, relatives never know what’s happened to their loved ones — and police don’t have to explain. There’s no need to file charges, present evidence, or even hold a trial. A simple accusation by the police or an anonymous informant is all that’s needed to lock up an innocent person for life.
Think such a thing could never happen in America? It already has. Dozens of individuals rounded up during the 9/11 investigations are still being held without charges and without the right to see an attorney.
The authors of Patriot II want to keep things that way. Its secret detention provision was created to circumvent a federal court decision requiring the Justice Department to identify those 9/11 detainees.
Under this legislation, prosecutors could also issue secret subpoenas, and jail people who reveal to anyone except their attorney that they have received one. Since most people who receive subpoenas are not criminal suspects, this amounts to letting the government conduct mass, secret interrogations of completely innocent Americans, then jailing them if they tell anyone what’s happened.
Secret arrests, secret evidence, secret subpoenas — haven’t thousands of American soldiers died fighting this kind of government?
Even one of the most cherished rights in America — the right of citizenship — is targeted under this bill. Patriot II empowers the Justice Department to strip citizenship from Americans who associate with a group designated as a “terrorist organization,” even if they’ve done nothing illegal.
Individuals who contribute money to such a group, even unwittingly, or attend the “wrong” political rally could lose their citizenship — and thus become easier to prosecute and/or deport.
Imagine this scenario: Two years from now, a violent individual blows up an abortion clinic. President Hillary Clinton responds by labeling Operation Rescue, and a number of other conservative Christian groups, “domestic terrorist organizations.” She orders everyone who has ever contributed to one of these organizations or attended a meeting rounded up, stripped of their citizenship and deported.
Or this: A radical environmentalist attacks an oil tanker, and President John Ashcroft responds with similar tactics against Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. He denounces them as domestic terrorist organizations, freezes their bank accounts and starts arresting their members.
Couldn’t happen in America? It already has happened — to several non-citizens rounded up during the 9/11 investigation. But if Patriot II is approved, it could start happening to American citizens as well.
Other provisions of this legislation are just as chilling. For example, the government could create a database of DNA collected not just from “suspected terrorists,” but from non-citizens suspected of ordinary crimes, such as burglary and assault.
In direct violation of the Fourth Amendment, prosecutors could conduct a wiretap for 15 days without a judge’s approval, and monitor an individual’s Internet behavior for two days without a warrant.
The attorney general could deport any foreigner, even a permanent legal resident, by deeming their presence “inconsistent with national security.”
Local police departments could resume spying on political protesters, because the legislation overturns court decrees prohibiting such surveillance.
Simply put, Patriot II would make America less of a free country — and there’s nothing patriotic about that.
GEOFFREY NEALE, Austin, Texas, is national chair of the Washington, DC-based Libertarian Party.