WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent letters to all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urging them to vote ‘No’ on final passage of the Ashcroft anti-terrorism bill, which grants police sweeping new powers of surveillance and detention.
The bill, however, was approved by the House Oct. 24 by a vote of 357-66. As we went to press, a vote of approval was expected in the Senate.
A conference committee of the House and Senate had earlier approved the measure and reported to the floor of the House and Senate, even though Capitol Hill offices were closed by the discovery of anthrax spores in mail delivered to Congressional offices.
Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington office, told the World the House-Senate conference left intact the most repressive, unconstitutional features of the Ashcroft bill. The so-called USA Act (HR-2975) ‘would give enormous, unwarranted power to the Executive Branch unchecked by meaningful judicial review,’ Murphy said.
Most of the new powers could be used against American citizens in counter-terrorism investigations and in routine criminal investigations completely unrelated to terrorism.
‘These new and unchecked powers could be used against American citizens who are not under criminal investigations, immigrants who are here within our borders legally and also against those whose First Amendment activities are deemed to be threats to national security by the Attorney General.’
With House offices closed and staff unable to access their papers, many lawmakers did not even have a chance to read HR-2975.
The legislative process is ‘deeply flawed’ and is an offense to the thoughtful legislative process necessary to protect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,’ the free speech group charged.
‘In past times of tragedy and fear, our government has harassed, investigated, and arrested people solely because of their race, religion, national origin, speech or political beliefs,’ the ACLU letter declared. ‘We must not allow that to happen again even as we work together to protect ourselves from future terrorist acts.’
The danger to the Bill of Rights was underlined by an article in the Sunday, Oct. 21 Washington Post, headlined, ‘FBI Weighs Torture Option.’
Written by Walter Pincus, the Post’s Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative journalist, the article reported that ‘FBI and Justice Department investigators are increasingly frustrated by the silence of jailed suspected associates of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network and some are beginning to say that traditional civil liberties may have to be cast aside if they are to extract information about the Sept. 11 attacks and terrorist plans.’
The article reported that 150 people have been rounded up by law enforcement officials but attention is focused on four suspects held in New York City who the FBI believe are withholding valuable information. ‘We’re in this thing for 35 days and nobody is talking,’ one senior FBI official told Pincus. ‘Frustration has begun to appear.’
An officer described by Pincus as an ‘experienced FBI agent involved in the investigation’ told the Post, ‘We are known for our humanitarian treatment … But it could get to the spot where we could go to pressure … where we won’t have a choice and we are probably getting there.’
Pincus writes, ‘Among alternative strategies under discussion are using drugs, or pressure tactics such as those used occasionally by Israeli interrogators to extract information.’ Another idea is extradition of the suspects to ‘allied countries where security services sometimes employ threats to family members or resort to torture.’
One former senior FBI official said, ‘You can’t torture [or] give drugs now [but if] there is another major attack on U.S. soil, the American public could let it happen.’ In a recent deportation case, five Supreme Court justices broached the possibility of waiving civil liberties to maintain national security in the face of the ‘genuine danger’ represented by terrorism.
These dangers could lead to ‘heightened deference to the judgments of the political branches with respect to matters of national security.’ Former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh is quoted by Pincus: ‘We put emphasis on due process and sometimes it strangles us.’