Civil Rights in Jeopardy
by Cindy Burke
If we believe the talking heads on the major TV news shows, most Americans are quite willing to let President Bush, the police, the FBI, CIA and Congress tamper with the Bill of Rights in the aftermath of September 11. And while polls do show that a majority say yes when asked if protection from domestic terrorist assaults is worth sacrificing some rights, as soon as the questions get more specific the results go the other way.
One week after September 11, 55 percent of the people polled by the Pew Research Center said that civil liberties should be sacrificed to curb terrorism. However, when asked if they would be willing to give away the right to private communications via phone or e-mail, 70 percent said no. What remains to be seen is what that 70 percent will do when they discover that recent bipartisan acts of Congress have done just that.
Mainstream media is doing its part to prevent such truths from reaching the population as organizations like FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) are documenting. While media execs would say that they are just giving the public what it wantsa 24-hour day, 7-day week Amen chorus for the US war against Afghanistanagain poll results show something quite different. Seventy five percent of those polled say that the media should report the views of those who believe that United States policies are to blame for September 11.
Despite all this, however, in a few short weeks Bush and Congress have undermined key Constitutional guarantees for citizens and, most especially, non-citizens. Some of these attacks came in the form of Executive Orders by Bush or emergency rules put forth by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. Then theres the USA Patriot Act, full nameUniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, introduced by Democrat Tom Daschle, which was made into law last month.
Since September 11, there has been a vast increase in federal and local police powers to search, detain, and deport citizens and legal residents including the right to monitor conversations between suspects (even if not yet charged with any crime) and their lawyers. Now terrorism suspects may be detained for seven days without charges and, if the suspect is not a citizen, detention may be indefinite.
President Bush now has the power, through Executive Order, to try terrorism suspects who are foreign nationals by military tribunals and to find such persons guilty without a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The tribunals would operate under new criteria of guilt. A mere preponderance of the evidence would be sufficient for a finding of guilt. Who is to be tried by these tribunals is determined solely by President Bush. None of the guarantees of a public trial by peers, the right to appeal or a unanimous verdict are available to these persons whom Bush may designate. Nor will the names of these persons even be made known to the public. Only two-thirds of the military panel needs to vote for conviction. Convictions are not subject to appeal or review.
The accused may be put to death with only a two-thirds vote by the tribunal judges and the trial may be held totally secret from the public and the press. Hearsay evidence is permitted and virtually none of the usual laws on evidence admissibility will apply. Some of the more than 1,000 persons arrested and detained since September 11, whose names the government refuses to disclose, could be tried in these tribunals.
In short, it took the bipartisan United States government just over two months to wipe out legal protections won over hundreds of years.
On November 9, Attorney General Ashcroft presented police departments around the country with the names of 5000 young men who entered the U.S. legally in the last two years. Police departments are to question these individuals about Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. These persons, mostly Arabs, are not entitled to be informed of their rights under the Constitution. The Justice Department says that the interviews are voluntary but if a subject is found to have an expired visa, he or she can be detained and jailed for that alone. Previously, an expired visa could be renewed over the phone. Now it may lead to indefinite detention.
But not even all local police officials are caving in to the Attorney General. Portland police chief Andrew Kirkland, an African American, refused to cooperate with the Justice Departments request to interview the individuals on their list saying, The law says, generally, we can interview people that we may suspect have committed a crime. But the law does not allow us to go out and arbitrarily interview people whose only offense is immigration or citizenship, and it doesnt give them authority to arbitrarily gather information on them.
Portland has a large immigrant population, and Chief Kirkland explained the city had historically passed through periods when immigrants were targets of political and police persecution.
Kirkland further explained that his own background played a role in his decision. I grew up in Detroit, he said, and I hated the police with a passion. They were always stopping and bothering me.
Contrast that to the stand of well-known attorney and Harvard University law Professor Alan Dershowitz. Fortune magazine has called him an impassioned civil libertarian. Esquire magazine called him the countrys most articulate and uncompromising protector of criminal defendants. Perhaps those magazines should take a look at Dershowitzs November 8 commentary published in the Los Angeles Times titled Is there a Torturous Road to Justice?
In that article Dershowitz suggests that there would be no constitutional barrier to granting a suspect immunity from prosecution and then injecting him with truth serum to find out what he knows about terrorism. If the truth serum doesnt work, Dershowitz suggests that a judge could issue a torture warrant.
Would such a warrant be consistent with American values? Says Dershowitz, The real debate is whether such torture should take place outside of our legal system or within it. The answer to this seems clear: If we are to have torture, it should be authorized by the law.
Dershowitz did not do all this sophisticated civil libertarian thinking just since September 11. He has long held the position that Israels use of torture against Palestinians is morally justifiable.
Newsweek Senior Editor Jonathan Alter suggested recently that torture might be necessary to force those detained after September 11 to talk to authorities. Their support of Zionism drives so-called liberals and civil libertarians like Alter and Dershowitz to advocate importing the murderous methods of the Israeli government to the United States.
As these assaults on the rights of working people become known to the public, there is every reason to believe that there will be an outcry against them just as has happened throughout history. Its a sign of the times when a Portland cop is a more reliable defender of civil liberties than the editor of a mass circulation magazine and a celebrated Harvard defense attorney.