United States Attorney-General John Ashcroft has recommended a widening of the USA Patriot Act, calling it a crucial tool in the global fight against terrorism. In an address before the House Judiciary Committee last week, Ashcroft espoused the expansion of the landmark Patriot Act legislation to include the death penalty and pre-trial detention provisions for suspected terrorists, as well as guarantees that those who aid terrorist cells as “material supporters” ultimately face charges.
In his 90-minute rhetorically-packed address, Ashcroft noted that the Patriot Act has thus far brought “3,000 foot soldiers of terror” to justice via its beefed-up integration of law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. Ashcroft repeatedly warned of the dangers that continue to face the US at the hands of terrorism, going so far as to read from a fatwa issued by Al- Qa’eda’s founders, Osama Bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri, effectively declaring war on American civilians.
The attorney-general went on to read out some names of those who died in the attacks of 11 September, as well as those who lost their lives in terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv, Israel, Bali, Indonesia, Casablanca, Morocco and Riyadh.
He called the acts in those cities “bitter reminders that the cold-blooded network of terror will continue to use the horror of their heinous acts to achieve their fanatical ends”. Earlier this year, draft legislation that would expand the Patriot Act was leaked to the press, meeting significant criticism from both civil liberties groups and multiple shades of the political spectrum.
The Patriot Act was passed by Congress in October 2001 in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, providing for an unprecedented expansion of powers for law enforcement officials — ranging from authorising roving wire taps to allowing for the detention of non-citizens for up to seven days without charges, among other measures.
Civil rights activists, in the meantime, have unanimously denounced the act as an attack on the most basic of civil liberties. Only days after Ashcroft’s announcement, officials revealed that over 13,000 men of Arab and Muslim descent may face deportation proceedings in the coming months — an extension of the austere measures imposed by America’s immigration system in the aftermath of 9/11.
On the first anniversary of the attacks, the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) launched the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a programme under which men over the age of 16 hailing from 20 Arab and predominantly Muslim countries are required to register with immigration officials.
Registration involves being interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted by federal authorities, while also requiring men to submit information about their job, visa and student status in routine fashion. 82,000 men have registered under the system since its inception.
Among advocates of Arab-American rights in the US, the response to the proposed mass deportations has been significant. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly Ali Abunimah, vice-president of the Arab-American Action Network and co-founder of the Internet magazine Electronic Intifada, cautioned against the consequences of such draconian measures. “The fact that the government is moving to deport so many people will potentially harm efforts to fight terrorism, because it will erode trust in the government.”
“There are so many reports of abuses and arbitrary treatment with this programme that it is hard to see how people will come forward voluntarily in the future,” said Abunimah. The news comes on the heels of a scathing report released by the Justice Department’s inspector-general detailing abuses of the federal immigration system in the aftermath of 9/11.
Released on 1 June, the critical report details countless instances of abuse surrounding the treatment of 762 illegal immigrants detained in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the Metropolitan Detention Centre (MDC) in Brooklyn and the Passaic County Jail in Patterson, New Jersey, including massive irregularities in proceedings as well as prolonged detention times, among other problems.
The INS allegedly failed to serve notices of immigration charges within mandated time frames. The report notes that the delays “affected the detainees in several ways, from their ability to understand why they were being held, to their ability to obtain legal counsel, to their ability to request a bond hearing”.
The report also details the FBI’s repeated failure to distinguish between detainees who were suspected of having terrorist connections and those who were held on other grounds. As a result, the report notes, countless persons were held for prolonged periods on effectively misguided grounds.
Meanwhile, an arduous clearance process took an average of 80 days due to a dearth of human resources and because the process was “not given sufficient priority”. Verbal and physical abuse, particularly in the MDC facilities, also figured prominently in the report. Immigrants arrested in New York faced “unduly harsh” detention policies, while 84 detainees were subjected to a 23-hour “lock down” during which they were placed in handcuffs, leg irons and heavy chains any time they moved outside of their respective cells.
If anything, the report reveals that times have changed, going so far as to acknowledge that pre-9/11, illegal immigrants would likely not have been detained in such fashion. Indeed, it seems that the fundamental basis of the American legal system has been suspended as, in the aftermath of the attacks, persons detained on immigration charges have been treated as guilty until proven otherwise.
While most of the 762 illegal immigrants have been deported, not one has been charged as a terrorist. Justice Department officials report that they have already adopted some of the 21 recommendations embedded within the report, though they have been anything but repentant in the face of the report’s criticisms.
NEGAR AZIMI writes for the Cairo weekly Al-Ahram, where this article orginally appeared.