by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 27, 2003
EXPLANATIONS FOR ASCHROFT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Attorney General John Ashcroft believes the press needs to do a better job explaining the U.S.A Patriot Act to the American people.
"We need the help of the news industry, the Fourth Estate, to inform citizens about the constitutional tools and methods being used in the war against terror," Ashcroft said on June 19 at a conference in Maryland for news executives sponsored by the Aspen Institute, a non-partisan policy research group.
Ashcroft believes the press has misrepresented what the Patriot Act is all about. In his view, the anti-terrorism legislation that was hastily enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks "has become a critical reason for our success in the war against terrorists, stopping further attacks in the United States."
Americans have no need to worry that their freedoms are being eroded, or so Ashcroft believes. But an honest explanation of the Patriot Act and post-Sept. 11 law enforcement tells a different story.
Under the Patriot Act, the federal government can arrest virtually anyone it deems to be a danger to national security, even without a formal criminal charge, and jail them indefinitely. It has the right to deny you a lawyer or even a trial, public or secret. It has the right to jail you without allowing you to confront your accusers. And all this can happen without your family or friends and relatives ever knowing what happened.
This is what you can expect if you are deemed to be a "terrorist" or are deemed to be "assisting a terrorist group." The definition of "terrorist" and "terrorist group" is purely up to the government, of course, and is currently broad enough to potentially include civil disobedience and other non-violent protests as acts of "domestic terrorism."
Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Justice Department rounded up more than 1,200 people and secretly imprisoned them. As many as about 500 of them are still being detained, while hundreds of others have been deported.
The federal government has refused to release the identities of those held. So far, none have been charged with any involvement with the Sept. 11 attacks and nearly all of the detainees have been cleared by the FBI of having any involvement with terrorism. Human rights groups have reported that these detainees - most of whom are immigrants or Arab-Americans - are being held under extremely harsh conditions, including confinement to their permanently illuminated cells for 23 hours a day.
The proposed sequel to the Patriot Act - the Domestic Security Enhancement Act - adds even more odious affronts to the rule of law, such as:
The above is probably not the explanation of federal anti-terrorism laws that John Ashcroft is looking for. But it is the reality of an unprecedented power grab by the federal government that allows federal law enforcement authorities to get away with things that were once only the province of dictatorships and police states.
Some say the threat posed by organizations such as al-Qaeda demand the use of harsher measures. In dealing with an enemy that doesn't fair, the authorities must be able take whatever means are necessary to fight them.
But does the threat of terrorism justify undermining our civil liberties? The answer is no. I believe the removal of even minimal checks on governmental power threatens our collective liberty and security far more than any outside threat.
The average American thinks he or she is safe. As long as only immigrants and Arab men are the targets, few seem to care. But historically when a regime has absolute power, it is only a matter of time before anyone and everyone is subject to official intimidation and attack.
This is why it is important to speak up now, before others disappear into the legal system, never to be heard from again.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).