John Buell

Civil Liberties and the 'War on Terror'

Shooting wars often hide many domestic sins of commission and omission. Nonetheless, as the war in Iraq drags on, the Bush administration's cavalier attitude toward civil liberties has become a concern.

The media have reacted with surprise and alarm to the latest revelations about the National Security Agency, but no one should have been surprised. The administration's repeated suggestions that the ruthlessness of the enemy justifies whatever steps it takes should have kept media watchdogs on alert.

For history students, Bush's rhetoric recalls those dogmatic left-wing defenses of Stalin in the 1930s. Stalin's sympathizers argued that food and security must be established before full freedom could be assured. I suspect we will have little security or economic justice if we don't start devoting more time to protecting our civil liberties.

The latest revelation is that the President has authorized the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless wiretaps on American citizens. Yet in the months following 9/11, the Justice Department itself documented extensive violations of the rights of immigrant Americans summarily arrested and detained without formal charge or trial. That same Justice Department also conceded that videotapes of prisoners taken to assure humane treatment and minimal due process had been destroyed, contrary to the Department's own standards.

The PATRIOT Act also notoriously requires librarians and booksellers to open their records to the FBI so that it can trace a person's internet activities and reading preferences. Librarians are legally obligated both to provide the material and not to reveal to the client that such investigations have been undertaken. A Freedom of Information request to the Justice Department regarding the number of FBI library visits has been denied by the government. Nonetheless, a survey conducted by the University of Illinois in October 2004, sent to 1,505 directors of 5,094 US public libraries, showed that the FBI had visited at least 545 libraries (10.7%) to ask for these records.

Why are these dangerous and draconian procedures needed? In the case of the warrantless intercepts, existing law already allows the president to seek retroactive approval for such surveillance. Law enforcement officials can move as quickly as circumstances require. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the administration simply wants to be able to act without any challenge or accountability. An administration that has treated criticism of the war as unpatriotic and that also deems scholarship assessing the precursors or motives for terrorism as sympathetic with terrorism seems to be as afraid of dissent as of violent acts.

Our history suggests that restrictions on political freedoms or rights of association have hardly enhanced our security, and may even be counterproductive. Jeff Milchen of Reclaim Democracy, a project devoted to restoring constitutional rights, suggests that "allowing officials to spy on citizens based on their politics or to search property without judicially scrutinized evidence typically wastes resources. Martin Luther King Jr. was the target of countless federal agents' investigations that produced mountains of files but no evidence of dangerous activity."

Milchen also points out: "The most dangerous terrorists tend to keep a low profile, rather than advocating publicly for social change. The Sept. 11 attackers, for example, evidenced little or no public political or religious activism. Government security agencies did have evidence that should have led to the investigation of some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, but that crucial evidence apparently was lost in an information overload."

Congress needs to push for hearings not merely on the NSA scandal but on the Administration's broad civil liberties record. Who has been tapped, toward what ends, and with what implications for democratic debate? One hopes that Maine's moderate Republicans will follow the legacy of Margaret Chase Smith and resist this administration's dangerous tendency to conflate all dissent with treason.

If physical safety is our real concern, full debate and access to information is vital. Terrorists have many ways of learning about the source and nature of our chemical and nuclear repositories, but access to information is a key resource for citizens concerned with evacuation plans and long-term safety decisions.

Perfect physical security is unlikely ever to be attained, and much of the modern technological progress we most admire may also paradoxically increase our risks. The 1984 Union Carbide catastrophe in Bhopal, India, killed far more people than any domestic act labeled as terrorism. A private corporation cut corners on basic safety and denied the public access to vital information.

Rather than face the implication of such dangers, the administration prefers to live in an intellectual cocoon. Protecting corporate prerogatives and limiting public debate is the real subtext of this administration's "war on terror." Both security and democracy are the losers in this process.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2006

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