WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is mobilizing its 53 chapters and 300,000 members in a campaign to keep the nation “Safe and Free” from attacks on constitutional rights by the Bush administration.

The campaign includes broadcast of a television commercial, litigation and mass organizing and lobbying in defense of the Bill of Rights. While stressing the ACLU’s abhorrence of terrorism the campaign also stresses its revulsion at those who exploit terrorism to undermine liberty.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero announced the $3.5 million campaign Oct. 18, warning that George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have used the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to seize sweeping powers of mass detention, spying and surveillance.

Romero singled out Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act as the centerpiece of the assault on the Bill of Rights. “This law, rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, is responsible for altering our nation’s immigration laws, expanding the government’s ability to spy on citizens, and increasing the capacity for unreasonable searches and seizures,” he said.

It has included detention of more than 8,000 people, mostly Arabs and people of color, “on little or no evidence of wrongdoing,” Romero added.

Ashcroft kept these people, the overwhelming majority of whom were innocent of any connection to terrorism, imprisoned at secret locations, even refusing to divulge their names.

Romero introduced several people who had been caught up in Ashcroft’s dragnet: Sister Virgine Lawinger of Wisconsin Peace Action, barred from boarding a plane and questioned about her plans to attend a Washington protest against the School of the Americas; Danny Muller of Voices in the Wilderness, to whom a postal clerk refused to sell stamps when Muller asked that they not include a likeness of the U.S. flag; A.J. Brown, interrogated by the Secret Service, because someone reported she had a poster critical of George W. Bush in her college dorm.

“Without an immediate and powerful public outcry on behalf of liberty, the administration’s calculated attempts to limit our constitutional rights and liberties could change the definition of freedom in America,” Romero concluded.

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington office, said the first priority of the Safe and Free project is to reverse Ashcroft’s decision to “rewrite guidelines that limit the ability of the FBI to engage in domestic spying.”

Those guidelines were imposed in the mid-1970s when hearings before Sen. Frank Church’s Select Committee on Intelligence exposed the FBI’s COINTELPRO “dirty tricks” campaign to destroy Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who publicly disagreed with government policies.

COINTELPRO was first used by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to spy on, harass, and disrupt, the Communist Party USA and was later directed against the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements. It culminated with Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” of more than 30,000 law-abiding citizens targeted for IRS audits and other forms of government retribution. Local police set up “Red Squads,” which, together with the FBI, infiltrated and disrupted protest meetings.

Now, Murphy warned, Ashcroft is taking steps to revive these tactics. “The attorney general’s new guidelines allow the FBI to work with municipal, county, and state police agencies to conduct joint operations that include spying on First Amendment-protected activities.”

She pointed out that local authorities can refuse to cooperate with these witch hunt activities as was done when the police department of Portland, Oregon refused to collaborate with the administration’s repressive campaign. The ACLU will also seek congressional repeal of the worst features of the Patriot Act.

Howard Simon, president of the Florida ACLU, recalled the debacle in the 2000 election in which at least 80,000 Florida voters were disenfranchised, opening the way or George W. Bush to steal the election.

He said the same thing happened in Florida’s Sept. 10 primary election when thousands of voters waited in interminable lines – or were turned away – because polling places failed to open or electronic voting machines failed to operate.

Simon warned that only a high state of vigilance can prevent a repeat of that fiasco. “If not corrected, Nov. 5 will be as bad or worse” than Sept. 10, he warned.

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