News Analysis

The Bush administration has been pushing an agenda of restricting constitutional rights and increasing the power of the executive branch to suppress dissent. Step by step, starting with the USA Patriot Act, Bush has gotten Congress to marginalize judicial oversight of executive branch spying on and repressing people it dislikes.

From the outset, Bush has used public fear of terrorist violence as leverage to pass repressive legislation. The intelligence bill just passed is an example of this strategy. It will do little to protect us from terrorism, but much to advance the right’s power agenda. Media discussion centered on the new position of a “national intelligence director” organizationally above the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agency heads. This served to distract public attention from the dangers to civil liberties contained in the bill.

Efforts by the Republicans to include language from the CLEAR Act that would have authorized state and local police to stop and question anybody they thought might be an “illegal” did not make final version, causing some far-rightists to vote against it. The bill as passed by the House and Senate also included some new “safeguards” for civil liberties, but these turn out to be pitifully weak. Here are some of the problems with the bill:

• It makes mere membership in an organization classified by the government as “terrorist” a felony. Remember that the government can so designate any organization it likes, without restraint either by the judiciary or Congress.

• It allows the government to use Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court warrants, which are secret, to place under surveillance noncitizens who have no known connection to any foreign government or terrorist organization, if the government says they may be “lone wolf” terrorists.

• It creates automatic pretrial jailing of people indicted for terrorism-related crimes by a grand jury, even if there is no indication the individual is dangerous or a flight risk. The accused must prove that he or she does not represent a risk. The ACLU, in a letter to Congress just before the bill was passed, pointed out that the current administration “has a record of making accusations of involvement in terrorism in pretrial hearings without evidence to support those accusations,” creating a real danger that innocent people will languish in jail for months or years.

• Under the pretext of facilitating coordination among intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the bill greatly expands the ability of the government to snoop on information in public and private databases, without adequate safeguards for people’s right to privacy.

• Though some of the worst anti-immigrant language of the bill was removed, the requirement of a national standard for the issuance of driver’s licenses can open the door to unnecessary restrictions on the issuance of licenses, or even a national ID.

• Grand jury information in “terrorism” cases will now be more easily shared with state and local governments and, even more worrisome, with foreign governments, who might use it to go after the families of individuals being investigated in the United States.

• It requires that the names of crews of ships docking in U.S. ports be checked against secret terrorism watch lists, similar to the lists that have been used to stop “dangerous” people (like Sen. Ted Kennedy) from getting on airplanes. This brings back memories of one of the worst abuses of McCarthyism, when sailors were blacklisted from U.S. ships because their names were on “subversive” lists. Thousands lost their livelihoods.

The bill creates a Civil Liberties Oversight Board that is supposed to prevent abuses. But this is a joke, as the president will appoint board members, they will work out of his executive office, and will serve at his pleasure. Yes, indeed, the fox will diligently guard the hen house.

The bill finally passed with only two nay votes in the Senate and 75 nays in the House. Both Republican and Democratic politicians are congratulating themselves for creating a moderate and workable document, but in the process they have opened the door to future attacks on civil liberties.