Rejecting appeals that they first read the 484-page Homeland Security bill, the Senate voted 90 to 9, Nov. 19, to approve the measure creating an enormous new cabinet-level department with a budget of $38 billion. The House approved the measure a few days earlier.
The lawmakers bowed to George W. Bush in stripping 170,000 federal workers of union rights and opening the door for massive spying on 300 million people in the U.S.
Bobby L. Harnage, president of the 600,000 member American Federation of Government Employees, blasted the unionbusting sections of the measure. “Undermining the collective bargaining rights and civil service protections of federal employees on the front lines of the war on terrorism does not improve the security of our homeland,” Harnage said. “Federal employees and their representatives should have a seat at the table as this department is established.”
The Senate voted 52 to 47 to reject an amendment by Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) to remove seven special interest amendments aimed at protecting corporate profits.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), in a floor speech, blasted a rider exempting Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant, from liability in several pending class-action lawsuits by parents of children suffering from autism and other defects. Eli Lilly used mercury as a preservative in their vaccines, which, the parents charge, caused the birth defects. “This is about corporate security, not homeland security,” Stabenow said.
The Daschle-Lieberman amendment also included language disqualifying from federal contracts with the new agency any corporation that relocated offshore to avoid taxes, a measure authored by late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). It, too, was voted down.
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), his voice shaking with anger, blasted his colleagues for their unseemly haste in rushing the bill, a huge tome sent to the Hill a few days ago by the White House. “I say to my colleagues, the Senate has had this bill for 48 hours. It is a new bill, not the bill we have been debating. It is 484 pages long. Before we stab ourselves with the dagger, we should read what is in it. … It does nothing to promote national security.”
But all attempts to slow the juggernaut were swept aside.
Hidden in the fine print was language approving a new outfit called the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (SARPA), which will oversee the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness Program. Bush authorized this new spy agency by executive fiat weeks ago, appointing Adm. John Poindexter, the convicted Iran-contra criminal, to run it. With a budget of $200 million, it would compile computer dossiers on tens of millions of people, based on information obtained without search warrants.
Under the headline, “You Are a Suspect,” William Safire, in the Nov. 14 New York Times, writes that every public record, including bank and credit card transactions, e-mails, school grades, medical prescriptions, voter registration and driver’s license records will be gathered into “a virtual centralized grand database.” Safire called it “the supersnoop’s dream: a Total Information Awareness about every U.S. citizen.”
There were other assaults on the Bill of Rights this week. A special three-man appeals court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, which had never met before, upheld Attorney General John Ashcroft’s warrantless spying under the USA Patriot Act. The appeals court overturned a unanimous ruling last May by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court which rejected Ashcroft’s line that he needed vast new spy powers to ferret out terrorists. All three men on the appeals court were appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and one, ultra-rightist judge Laurence H. Silberman, is notorious for overturning Lt. Col. Oliver North’s conviction in the Iran-contra conspiracy in the 1980s.
Ann Beeson, litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union, reacted, “As of today, the Attorney General can suspend the ordinary requirements of the Fourth Amendment in order to listen in on phone calls, read e-mails and conduct secret searches of Americans homes and offices,” she said. “Hearing a one-sided argument and doing so in secret goes against the traditions of fairness and open government that have been the hallmark in our democracy.”
In another blow to democracy, the Senate confirmed ultra-right Judge Dennis Shedd of South Carolina to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was a pat on the back to retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). The Senators bowed once again to Bush while stiff-arming opposition by labor unions and civil rights groups who pointed out Shedd never once ruled in favor of a victim of employment discrimination.
Kit Gage, director of the First Amendment Foundation and Washington representative of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, denounced the “dangerous” attacks on the Constitution. Asked what the people should do, she replied, “There is no quick or easy answer. We are in for a long, protracted struggle. There is so much power concentrated in the White House I don’t even want to think about the implications.”
Yet, she said, victories are possible. “We turned back Ashcroft’s TIPS program. It generated so much outrage that they were forced to cut it back. Poindexter is a very large target. We need a Congress that will stand up. We need a populace that will stand up. We do not live in a dictatorship.”
She cited votes in local municipalities such as Portland, Ore., and Tacoma Park, Md., where city councils have voted overwhelmingly not to cooperate with Ashcroft’s repression. “These local initiatives help to build the grassroots coalitions we need to reverse this,” she said. “I travel across the country and there is widespread suspicion that our civil liberties are in peril.”
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