Ashcroft bill trashes Bill of Rights

October 9, 2001

WASHINGTON – Defenders of civil liberties warned this week that a ‘compromise’ anti-terrorism bill that the Bush administration is seeking to ram through Congress would give federal authorities vast new powers of surveillance and mass detention in violation of the Bill of Rights.

‘This legislation still does not meet the basic test of maximizing our security while minimizing the impact on our civil liberties,’ said Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Washington office.

Terrorism is so broadly defined and such harsh penalties are sought in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s proposed package that it ‘could lead to thousands of protesters at an anti-war rally [being] labeled as conspirators in a terrorist plot,’ the ACLU warned.

The compromise bill ‘would confer new and unprecedented detention authority on the Attorney General based on vague and unspecified predictions of threats to the national security,’ said the ACLU.

It would also authorize a sweeping expansion of electronic surveillance, including wiretapping telephones, cellular phones and e-mail with virtually no judicial oversight. ‘It would authorize what would be the equivalent of a blank warrant,’ the ACLU critique declared, ‘the court issues the order and the law enforcement agent fills in the places to be searched. This is not consistent with the important Fourth Amendment privacy protection of requiring that warrants specify the place to be searched.’

In an interview with the World after addressing the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Legislative Conference Sept. 28, Murphy described the anti-terrorism bill as a ‘runaway train,’ adding, ‘It’s going to take heroic action’ on the part of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-N.Y.) ‘to put the brakes on.’

In her speech to a CBC session chaired by Conyers, Murphy told the crowd it would be ‘outrageous’ for Congress to give Ashcroft ‘the right to detain people without charges, give him unlimited wiretap authority. We have to see this bill for what it is: a power grab by the administration taking advantage of the fear and concern in our country.’

‘We cannot give in to the scare in this country. It is racist and discriminatory to paint people with the same brush,’ Murphy said.

Murphy then told a story about her uncle who traveled around the country with Paul Robeson. Robeson was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee and her father defended him.

‘We should not forget the thousands of Japanese Americans put in concentration camps,’ she added. ‘We cannot allow this country to go backwards.’

Rep. Mel Watts (D-N.C.), a member of the CBC, told the World that he and other members of the House Judiciary Committee have been meeting with Bush administration officials ‘to convince the Attorney General and the White House that we can’t just wholesale do away with privacy and individual liberty and give police unfettered authority to do more or less what they want to do.’

Supporters of the compromise claim it places a seven-day limit on detention of immigrants. However, Gregory T. Nojeim, associate director of the ACLU Washington office, debunked this claim. The language of the bill is so tricky, he charged, ‘that they can keep people in jail forever who have never been convicted of a crime. We will urge members of Congress to vote against this bill as currently written.’

The majority Republican House is expected to vote on the package as early as next week. But Sen. Leahy has refused to rush a similar package through the Senate. A Senate version is expected to reach the floor within two weeks.

In comments to the CBC, Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, quoted an op-ed piece that appeared in a New Jersey newspaper justifying racial profiling of Arab Americans as ‘reasonable.’

Arab Americans, the article stated, must assist law enforcement if they want to place themselves above suspicion.

‘This is an encouragement of hate crimes against these communities,’ Zogby said. ‘Profiling assumes collective guilt of an entire family. It is bad law enforcement.’

Conyers decried ‘a general climate of fear’ adding, ‘We must stand against the broad-based tactics of racial profiling, particularly of Arab Americans, during this time of national turmoil.’


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