WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned Nov. 28 that the Bush administration has unleashed a “breathtakingly broad” assault on civil liberties in the past 10 weeks, violating a wide range of “due process” legal rights protected by the Constitution and jailing more than 1,200 people in the most massive preventive detention program since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The ACLU pointed out that only 1 percent of those in custody are “suspected” in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the rest held either as “material witnesses” or on minor issues like overstaying their visas.

The latest move by Attorney General John Ashcroft is his Dec. 1 announcement of a “review” of rules implemented in the 1970s curbing covert spying against the peace and justice movements by the FBI through its notorious counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). More than 30,000 people on President Nixon’s “enemies list” were put in prison, subjected to IRS audits or other “dirty tricks” for their work in support of civil rights and an end to the Vietnam War.

Ashcroft himself lapsed into this “enemies” rhetoric in announcing the effort to revive COINTELPRO, accusing critics of “almost eagerly assuming the worst of their government before they’ve had a chance to understand it.”

The ACLU’s warning is contained in a 12-page statement titled “Preserving Freedoms While Defending Against Terrorism,” which the ACLU submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee as it opened hearings on the “anti-terrorism” measures.

The most sinister move is Bush’s Nov. 13 “Military Order” permitting unlimited detention of accused terrorists and their trial before secret military tribunals. Bush even authorized secret executions of those convicted of terrorism, requiring only a two-thirds majority vote of the commissioners.

“These tribunals will not be governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and do not contain the protections provided by the UCMJ,” the ACLU statement charged. “The order was issued without a formal declaration of war or any authorization of the Congress for the establishment of military tribunals.”

Bush’s order, it continued, “circumvents the basic statutory requirement – at the heart of the compromise that was the USA Patriot Act – that non-citizens suspected of terrorism must be charged with a crime or immigration violation within seven days of being taken into custody and that such detainees will have full access to the federal courts. Bush’s Military Order is unjustified and dangerous. It permits the U.S. criminal justice system to be swept aside merely on the President’s finding that he has ‘reason to believe’ that a non-citizen may be involved in terrorism.”

The statement criticized Bush and Ashcroft for their “erroneous” claim that denying non-citizens “due process” is permissible. Just last summer the Supreme Court explicitly ruled that all residents, whether legal or not, are protected by the Constitution, the ACLU said. “While the Order applies in terms only to non-citizens, the precedents on which the President relies make no such distinction, thereby permitting the Order to be extended to cover United States citizens at the stroke of a pen.”

The president, the statement stated, “does not have unchecked power by virtue of his authority as commander-in-chief.” Rather, he shares power with Congress and the Judiciary.

ACLU Washington Director Laura Murphy pointed out that both Ashcroft and Bush have promised not to erode civil liberties and civil rights in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Unfortunately, the administration’s actions have belied those promises. From establishing military tribunals without Congressional approval to expanding wiretapping authority while limiting judicial oversight, the Bush administration is demonstrating its disregard for the other two branches of government,” Murphy said. “The all-important balance of powers is becoming dangerously tilted, threatening the underpinnings of our democracy.”