Storm erupts over Patriot Act

WASHINGTON — House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) was so enraged by a witness from Amnesty International USA, who linked the Patriot Act to torture at secret U.S. detention facilities around the world, that he gaveled a June 10 hearing to an end. He ordered microphones turned off and stormed out of the hearing room.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) blasted Sensenbrenner for being “rude” and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called it a “shameful attempt today to silence” witnesses against the Patriot Act.

Eric Sears, manager of Amnesty USA’s grassroots project, “Denounce Torture,” told the World his organization stands behind their charges. “The Patriot Act and these abuses around the world are all part of a clamp-down on human rights justified under the ‘war on terror.’ But we say the best way to promote security is through a human rights agenda.”

The Patriot Act, as well as White House memos condoning torture, “have certainly helped to foster an environment under which these abuses were practiced and at higher levels of the government, condoned,” Sears said.

He hailed legislation introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) that would ban the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” the kidnapping and transport of detainees by the CIA to other nations which use torture as a method of interrogation. “We call it ‘outsourcing torture,’” Sears said. “We’re beginning to get some traction in Congress on the issue. People need to call their senators and representatives and ask them to support laws banning torture and abuse.”

On June 26, the UN Day of Support for Victims of Torture, Amnesty International will convene teach-ins and forums on the torture and abuse of detainees.

The Republican majority in Congress met in secret to draft the legislation renewing clauses in the Patriot Act set to expire under sunset rules demanded by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) when the bill was rammed through a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Amnesty and others have called for the “sun to set” on the repressive clauses.

Several hearings were held with handpicked supporters of the Patriot Act as witnesses, but Conyers, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, then invoked a little-known rule that allows the minority party to convene one day of hearings and choose the witnesses if they are unhappy with earlier hearings.

The lead-off witness, Chip Pitts, Amnesty International USA’s chairman of the board, told the hearing the Patriot Act created a climate for human rights violations at home and abroad. In its annual report, Amnesty International accused the Bush administration of operating a “gulag” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; and other secret sites around the world.

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said the report was “irresponsible and the type of rhetoric that endangers American lives.” He demanded that Pitts retract the word “gulag.”

But Pitts, holding up a sheaf of government documents, snapped back, “It’s not Amnesty that is putting the United States in this position and it’s not just Amnesty’s reports. It’s the government’s own reports. It’s the reams of government memos that show we created a black hole … disappearances, stripping them, beating them — these are practices people are now seeing at Guantanamo.”

Pitts cited evidence of a surge of terrorism since the Patriot Act was enacted. “I think its more than just a correlation, it’s causation,” he said. “I think it’s absurd for the United States to create a legal black hole. It’s time to fill in that black hole and shut Guantanamo.”

Sensenbrenner, his face red with anger, told the hearing that the Armed Services Committee, not the Judiciary Committee, has jurisdiction over Guantanamo. Conyers retorted, “The issue here is civil liberties and constitutional rights and the Judiciary Committee does have jurisdiction.”

Sensenbrenner demanded that Deborah Pearlstein, director of the U.S. Law and Security Program, supply a list of library-goers whose rights have been violated by a section of the Patriot Act that requires librarians to turn over to the FBI the names of people and the titles of books they checked out. Pearlstein said thousands of library-goers, as well as librarians have protested this snooping into peoples’ reading habits.

Arab American Institute President James Zogby said the Patriot Act has legalized massive profiling of Arab Americans and Muslims, “spreading fear and intimidation” among these loyal, law-abiding Americans.

“This, in turn, has created an image around the world of the Bush administration as a human rights abuser,” Zogby said. “When there is this much hatred towards America, it makes it more difficult for us to gain allies in the [Middle East] region and damages our national security,” he said.

Arizona Republican Trent Franks assailed Zogby “for suggesting that American personnel are torturing detainees.” Zogby retorted, “Don’t blame me. I’m not the one who wrote the memos.”