Nation resounds to call: Repeal the Patriot Act

WASHINGTON – A crowd of 3,000 people at Constitution Hall, Nov. 9, erupted in cheers when Al Gore called for repeal of the Patriot Act to stop George W. Bush’s assault on the Bill of Rights.

Gore, who won the popular vote in the stolen 2000 presidential election, accused the Bush-Cheney administration of attempting “to relegate the Congress and the Courts to the sidelines and replace our democratic system of checks and balances with an unaccountable Executive. And all the while it has angled for ways to exploit the sense of crisis for political gain and political dominance. How dare they!”

Laying siege to the Bill of Rights in the name of “fighting terrorism” makes no more sense than “invading Iraq to capture Osama bin Laden,” Gore charged. Both were based on a curtain of lies and deceit. “I believe the Patriot Act has turned out to be, on balance, a terrible mistake, and that it became a kind of Tonkin Gulf Resolution conferring Congress’ blessing for this President’s assault on civil liberties … the Patriot Act must be repealed,” Gore said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft ramrodded the USA Patriot Act through Congress just 45 days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Bush administration was helped in its effort to stampede the Congress by the anthrax scare that emptied most Capitol Hill offices, insuring that almost none of the lawmakers read the massive bill with its sweeping attacks on constitutional rights.

According to a detailed analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Patriot Act:

* Expands terrorism laws to include “domestic terrorism,” which opens political organizations to surveillance, wiretapping, harassment, and criminal action for political advocacy.

* Permits the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to engage in secret searches, including “sneak and peek” break-ins of people’s homes and offices under guise of “terror investigations” in flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment right against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

* Allows the FBI to investigate American citizens for criminal matters without probable cause if the agency says it is for “intelligence purposes.”

* Permits federal law enforcement to jail non-citizens based on mere “suspicion” and to deny these immigrants re-admission to the U.S. for engaging in free speech. It is a massive Ashcroft program of racial and religious profiling.

Under the draconian powers conferred by the Patriot Act, the Bush administration has interrogated thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants, forcing them to register. An undisclosed number, in the thousands, of these immigrants have been imprisoned for months without criminal charges and/or deported. Ashcroft has refused to divulge their names even when ordered to do so by the courts. On Dec. 1, the Department of Homeland Security announced an end to the registration program it inherited from the Justice Department, after major damage had been done to families and communities. The government said it did not nab one terrorist from the program.

So far, three states – Hawaii, Alaska, and Vermont – and 218 cities and towns have enacted resolutions calling for repeal of the Patriot Act, in whole or in part. Many resolutions instruct local law enforcement to refuse to cooperate in enforcement of the police state measure. Ashcroft went on the road last summer attempting to counter the calls for repeal of the Patriot Act. Everywhere he went, he was picketed.

Last month, The New York Times obtained an internal FBI memo revealing that the Justice Department is instructing state and local police in how to spy on the peace movement pursuant to the Patriot Act. The memo, or bulletin, was circulated in October to local law enforcement agencies in advance of demonstrations protesting the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, charged, “This bulletin confirms that the federal government is targeting innocent Americans engaged in nothing more than lawful protest and dissent. The American people deserve an explanation for what is clearly a return to the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s spying tactics.”

He charged that the ACLU already has proof that the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces has enlisted the Denver police to spy on peaceful protest activities “that have nothing to do with terrorism or any other criminal activity.” Romero also blasted the U.S. Secret Service for “corralling anti-Bush protesters into pens or designated areas far from the media.”

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In New Mexico

A coalition grows against the Patriot Act

The following is a recent interview with Peter Simonson, executive director of the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union, on the coalition effort there to oppose the USA Patriot Act. The interview was conducted by Emil Shaw, World volunteer correspondent and local activist.

ES: The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has had phenomenal success in getting people in our state to oppose parts of the Patriot Act, notably the investigations of people’s use of libraries and infringements on personal liberties. How do you explain this success?

PS: Well, the ACLU probably can’t take full credit. Some 12 communities in New Mexico have passed resolutions opposing the Patriot Act. The people in their respective municipalities were a part of all our successes.

Last night [Nov. 5] the New Mexico House of Representatives passed a memorial [non-binding resolution] that effectively opposes the Patriot Act. During the next session we will be approaching the full Legislature hoping to get a full joint memorial passed of a similar nature.

We have taken advantage of a strong current in New Mexico society that is very concerned about any threats of government abuse and government interventions in their personal privacy. The powers that the federal government has claimed for fighting terrorism have not been used for that purpose but rather to investigate and prosecute garden-variety crimes. There was an incident in Las Vegas, Nev., where the FBI was using sections of the Patriot Act to investigate local politicians, who were accused of bribery ... if the Department of Justice had its way on all matters of criminal investigation, then we wouldn’t have a Fourth Amendment [protection against unreasonable search and seizure]. We wouldn’t have most of our Bill of Rights. We need to preserve those basic protections.

ES: So you separate the fight against terrorism from the intrusion by the government in the civil liberties of American citizens?

PS: Yes. The memorial reiterates the Legislature’s commitment to support investigations of terrorism that are rational and deliberative, but it also states that the House believes that we can be safe and free at the same time. These two necessities, these two fundamental principles of our society, are not an inherent contradiction, which has been sort of the propaganda campaign by the Bush administration. They have tried to convince the American public that sacrifices in civil liberties must be made in order to avoid another catastrophic attack like Sept. 11.

The memorial also discourages our local police, our state police, from engaging in racial profiling. It discourages them from conducting searches and seizures outside of the boundaries prescribed by state law. It discourages state police from conducting surveillance on political and religious activities without having individualized criminal suspicion. And it requires state libraries to notify patrons of threats to their privacy under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. It requires educational institutions to notify people if their educational records are being seized by the federal government for the purpose of investigation.

ES: This is a state where 50 percent of the population earns their living from the federal government and seems to be very patriotic in terms of their commitment to different policies. Yet they still stand up for basic principles of democracy?

PS: Yes. I see those things as intimately intertwined. So many people here are connected to the government. They know the potential abuses that can occur when government bureaucracy is out of control.

We now have a national administration in place that is out of control. With no logical purpose, they are seeking to expand the authority of the executive branch. They try to justify that to the American public with fears of terrorism and the suggestion that a pseudo-police state is a safer place, and has a higher standard of living than a country that’s free and democratic and provides for individual self-expression.

ES: I see here by your news release that you have a number of groups in support – the American Association of University Women; Common Cause; Drug Policy Alliance; League of Women Voters; NM Conference of Churches. Are there other groups – such as unions – that have come out in support?

PS: Yes, the Central Labor Council of New Mexico has come out in support, and the northern and southern central labor councils. The Rio Grande Foundation, a local conservative think tank, has also come on board. We share the common belief that we should be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Patriot Act singles out that particular protection under the Bill of Rights.

This is an initiative where you have a dominant media going against you. You have some high profile federal politicians in power who slam anyone, and publicly denigrate groups that come out in opposition to what the government’s doing around anti-terrorism. So it’s no small matter that labor councils have endorsed this proposal and gone on record publicly as saying that they sense a threat to their own organizing activities under the provisions of the Patriot Act

ES: Can you elaborate somewhat in regard to political activities that the FBI has investigated, using the Patriot Act?

PS: Just recently we saw an FBI officer in Fresno, Calif., was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident, and when his obituary appeared in a Fresno newspaper, some Unitarian Church activists recognized the name as one of the people who had been participating in their activities. Evidently the agent was planted there covertly in order to spy on the activities of that group.

The Patriot Act has also encouraged local law enforcement, for example in Denver, to spy on groups, gather intelligence about organizations that are engaged in legitimate political activity. And in the case of Denver, the files that the Denver police had gathered on these legitimate groups – including, I believe, the American Friends Service Committee – found that they were targets of the surveillance that the police were conducting. What conceivable reason does the FBI have for investigating these legitimate groups? These are some of the more respected groups in our country, yes, of a more progressive nature, not of a far right nature, but nevertheless the government, despite its political leanings, has to concede that there needs to be a space for all groups to participate in political activity. That’s what the First Amendment guarantees.

ES: In regard to the First Amendment rights, the Albuquerque Journal also came out in opposition to the intrusions of the Patriot Act, in particular with the library situation.

PS: Well, I’d hope that the press would be extremely vocal in opposition to the Patriot Act, because they are one of the sectors that are most threatened by this, in addition to political organizations.

I think it’s highly significant, the NM Press Association voted to endorse the memorial passed by the House. The bottom line is that a paper like the Journal, as well as other conservative groups, have come on board the movement against the Patriot Act. We see conservative legislators, conservative newspapers, conservative communities in the state of New Mexico voicing just as much opposition as the left. Here in New Mexico we’ve seen Farmington, Aztec and Soccorro and Bayard pass community resolutions opposing the Patriot Act. Those are communities that you would not traditionally expect to sign on to a movement opposing a Republican government. At the congressional level we have Rep. Otter of Idaho introducing changes, amendments, to the Patriot Act that would neuter some of its most heinous provisions. In Otter’s case, he proposed an amendment to the Patriot Act that guts funding for the “sneak and peak” provision in Section 213 that allows the FBI to conduct searches without giving notice of those searches.

ES: I think also Rep. Tom Udall was also a part of that group of people along with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

PS: Yes, I mean we’re just encouraged by the increasing vocalness of our local political leaders, Udall above all, in airing their concerns and expressing their opposition to various parts of the Patriot Act. Udall has been a leader in this state and nationally in trying to see some of these effects of the Patriot Act ameliorated, or amended. He now has an act before Congress, the “Safe Act,” that probably has the greatest chance of passing in Congress, and would amend some of the key sections of the Patriot Act that are most worrisome.

Our struggle to have our State Legislature pass a comprehensive memorial that issues the full state’s opposition to the Patriot Act will continue during the next legislative session. We encourage anybody in the community who is interested in that movement and who wants to sign on to our coalition to contact us.

ES: One final point. I thought it was very interesting that the local Albuquerque group approached you, and through various discussions decided to call themselves the “Bill of Rights Defense Committee.”

PS: Well, of course you know that nationwide there’s a movement by a newly founded organization called the “Bill of Rights Defense Committee,” and whether they call themselves the Bill of Rights Defense Committee or “We Hate Patriot Act” group … we don’t have to have our stamp on these groups. We just want to see these groups succeed in convincing their legislators, their political leaders, to oppose the Patriot Act. *