Civil liberties timeline
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Civil liberties, R.I.P.
How George Bush and John Ashcroft used the Sept. 11 tragedy to shred the Bill of Rights and begin the greatest period of political repression since the McCarthy era. A selective chronology.
JUST A FEW days after the horrifying attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when most of the nation was wrenched with grief and confusion, the Bush administration, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, was already busy launching a second assault – on the rights and liberties of everyone who lives in the United States.
Instead of raising the appropriate questions – How could an intelligence operation that costs the public billions of dollars a year have failed to notice the often clumsy moves of a handful of terrorists living in this country and training, fairly openly, to turn airliners into flying bombs? And what has the United States been doing around the globe that has created so much hate that 19 people were willing to give up their lives to attack us? – President George W. Bush and Ashcroft looked internally and asked, What can we do to crack down not just on potential terrorism but also on anything that looks like political dissent?
Along the way, they decided it was perfectly acceptable to arrest, detain, and deport people entirely on the basis of their race, religion, or national origin – and that was just the start. The assault on the basic civil liberties that people in this country have taken for granted has been unprecedented in the modern era.
When you look at the record of the past year, item by item, the pattern is frightening. It suggests that the greatest enemy to the American way of life may not be al-Qaeda or its foreign sponsors. The greatest threat may be our own government.
What follows is a selective chronology of key events since Sept. 11.
Sept. 20, 2001: Round up the usual suspects The U.S. Department of Justice publishes an interim regulation allowing noncitizens suspected of terrorism to be detained without charge for 48 hours or "an additional reasonable period of time" in the event of an "emergency or other extraordinary circumstance." The rule is made effective Sept. 17, 2001, three days prior to its publication.
Oct. 1, 2001: Free speech crushed Dave "Davey D" Cook is fired from San Francisco's KMEL-FM, a station owned by Clear Channel Communications, after he invites Rep. Barbara Lee onto his program to explain her opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan. Three days later, Peter Werbe's nationally syndicated program is axed by Santa Cruz station KSCO/KOMY-AM after Werbe speaks out against the bombing of Afghanistan.
Clear Channel ultimately names 150 "inappropriate" songs it doesn't want its stations to play in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The list includes "Walk like an Egyptian" (the Bangles), "Doctor My Eyes" (Jackson Browne), "Hey Joe" (Jimi Hendrix), "Daniel" (Elton John), and "New York, New York" (Frank Sinatra) (see Life during Wartime, 10/24/01; "10 Songs Banned," 10/19/01).
Oct. 4, 2001: FBI tries to end bail The Federal Bureau of Investigation begins to use a boilerplate memo to oppose bond in all post-Sept. 11 cases. The memo states, "The FBI is gathering and culling information that may corroborate or diminish our current suspicions of the individuals who have been detained.... The FBI has been unable to rule out the possibility that respondent is somehow linked to, or possesses knowledge of, the terrorist attacks." (Memo submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Immigration Court, "In Bond Proceedings," "Exhibit A," signed by Michael E. Rolince, Section Chief, International Terrorism Operations Section, Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation)
Oct. 12, 2001: Official secrecy becomes official Ashcroft encourages federal agencies to deny requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. In a memo to all government departments and agencies, he states, "When you ... decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis." This is a dramatic shift from former attorney general Janet Reno, who had instructed federal officials to grant FOIA requests unless there was "foreseeable harm" in doing so.
The government also makes sweeping changes to federal Web sites, removing nine types of information, ranging from data on energy facilities to reports of enforcement actions against airlines (see Life during Wartime, 10/24/01).
Oct. 21, 2001: We have ways to make them talk The Washington Post reports that FBI and Justice Department officials are considering ways to get information from four key suspects currently in custody in New York. "Among the alternative strategies under discussion ... is extraditing the subjects to allied countries where security services sometimes use threats to family members or resort to torture."
Oct. 26, 2001: So long, Bill of Rights Bush signs into law the USA PATRIOT Act, which, among other things:
• Permits detention and deportation of noncitizens who provide "assistance" for lawful activities of a group the government now claims is a terrorist organization, even if the group has never in the past been designated as such. Under this provision the secretary of state (or his or her appointees) can designate any group that has ever engaged in violent activity as a terrorist organization. This provision, which can be applied retroactively, could conceivably be used to deport someone who contributed to Greenpeace in 1980, because Greenpeace at some point used "violence" against property as part of its tactics.
• Permits indefinite detention of immigrants who are not terrorists. Immigrants who are arrested and not found to have any links to terrorism – but have an immigration status violation, such as overstaying a visa – could face indefinite detention if their native country refuses to accept them. Detention would be allowed on the attorney general's finding that their activities pose a danger to national security. There is no requirement that indefinite detainees ever be given a trial or a hearing in which the government would have to prove that they are in fact terrorists.
• Allows law enforcement to order Internet service providers to reveal the Web sites and e-mail addresses that a "suspect" has communicated to or visited. The FBI can get an order from a judge alleging that the information to be obtained is "relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation," and the judge must grant the order upon receiving this certification.
• Encourages financial institutions to disclose possible violations of law or "suspicious activities" by any client. The institution is prohibited from notifying the person involved that it made such a report. This section allows financial institutions – not a judge – to determine what activities are "suspicious," as the term "suspicious" is not defined in the act. There is no judicial review of these reports.
• Allows federal agents to easily obtain warrants to review a library patron's reading and computer habits.
Oct. 31, 2001: Don't call your lawyer The Justice Department issues an interim regulation that allows eavesdropping on attorney-client conversations in federal prisons wherever there is "reasonable suspicion ... to believe that a particular inmate may use communications with attorneys to further or facilitate acts of terrorism"; the regulation requires written notice to the inmate and attorney, "except in the case of prior court authorization".
Nov. 7, 2001: The CIA comes home The president announces the first formal meeting of the full Homeland Security Council and the creation of a Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, which will deny entry to, locate, detain, prosecute, and deport anyone suspected of terrorist activity. The task force includes the U.S. Department of State, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the U.S Customs Service, and the intelligence community. This is the first indication of a major new change in national policy: the CIA, which was legally barred from getting involved in domestic cases, will be working closely and sharing information with the FBI and other agencies. The Bush administration has essentially created a domestic secret-police agency. (White House announcement, 11/07/01)
Nov. 9, 2001: 5,000 Arabs under suspicion The attorney general issues a memo directing the government to interview 5,000 men, ages 18 to 33, who entered United States since January 2000 and who came from countries where al-Qaeda has a "terrorist presence or activity." The interviews are to be "voluntary," but immigration status questions may be asked. Many people, including U.S. citizens, are detained. Ultimately, as many as 1,200 people are held.
Nov. 13, 2001: Military tribunals Bush issues an executive order authorizing the creation of military tribunals to try noncitizens alleged to be involved in international terrorism.
Nov. 16, 2001: America's disappeared The Justice Department issues a letter to Sen. Russel D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who is holding hearings on post-Sept. 11 detentions, asserting that identities and locations of Sept. 11 detainees will not be disclosed. (U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Legislative Affairs, letter to Feingold, 11/16/01)
Nov. 19, 2001: Noncitizens fired at airports Bush signs into law the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which requires all people who work as security screeners at airports to be U.S. citizens. Thousands of trained, experienced screeners are fired.
Nov. 29, 2001: 'Snitch visas' Ashcroft issues a memo announcing the use of special visas for those who provide information relating to terrorists. (Attorney General directive on Responsible Cooperators Program, 10/29/01)
Dec. 4, 2001: Ashcroft says dissent is disloyal Testifying at Feingold's hearings on the status of Sept. 11 detainees, Ashcroft states that those who question his policies are "aiding and abetting terrorism."
"To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," Ashcroft says. "They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil."
Jan. 28, 2002: No POWs here Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visits the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, where prisoners captured in Afghanistan are being held. He announces they will not be given the rights granted to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.
March 1, 2001: Your secret government The Washington Post reports that the White House is maintaining a permanent "shadow government" of about 100 executive-branch honchos in two heavily fortified underground bunkers on the East Coast. In theory, the shadow government will run the country if nuke-wielding terrorists destroy the White House, the Pentagon, and other federal command centers.
The Bush administration acknowledges the alt-government exists. But key details remain top secret. Not surprisingly, the White House and the Pentagon aren't saying who exactly staffs it (question number one: Who's got the nuclear trigger duties?) (see Life during Wartime, 3/6/01).
March 2002: American soldiers are above the law The Bush administration puts pressure on governments that receive U.S. military assistance to sign agreements not to surrender or transfer U.S. nationals to the new International Criminal Court. In many situations, the administration threatens to withdraw military assistance unless the allied government signs the agreement.
April 10, 2002: Local cops are now the INS The Justice Department issues a legal opinion stating that local police officers have "inherent" power to enforce the nation's immigration laws – essentially turning local police into INS agents.
April 22, 2002: Secret prisoners Ashcroft issues an interim regulation that forbids any state or county jail from releasing information about INS detainees housed in its facilities. This regulation contradicts a New Jersey state court decision ordering the release of information regarding detainees in New Jersey facilities. The rule is made effective April 17, a week prior to its publication.
June 2, 2002: Feinstein loves racial profiling Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) tells CNN June 2 that racial profiling is entirely justified when the government is looking for terrorists. "One isn't going to look for blond Norwegians," she says. The "racial profiling debate," the California legislator continues, "has had a chilling impact" on the feds. When a Bay Guardian reporter calls Feinstein's office to ask whether racial profiling would have caught Timothy McVeigh, who committed the second-worse terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil, her spokesperson has no good answer (see Life during Wartime, 6/12/02).
July 15, 2002: The government ducks a big trial John Walker Lindh, the accused "Marin Taliban," is allowed to plead to relatively minor charges ("supplying services" to the Taliban and carrying an explosive) in exchange for a prison term of 20 years. Given the kind of jail time he was facing – and the threats of capital charges – the deal is a clear gift.
Had the case gone to a jury, Lindh's savvy defense lawyer, James J. Brosnahan of the San Francisco firm Morrison and Foerster, would have put the U.S. government on trial in a very public way. Already, the lawyer was divulging embarrassing evidence that Lindh was threatened and possibly tortured, barred from speaking to his family, denied medical attention, denied legal counsel, and for two days, kept naked, blindfolded, and restrained. Brosnahan was fighting to put Taliban POWs on the stand, and in all likelihood their stories about how they're being treated while incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay would not have been pretty.
The plea bargain stands as a demonstration of how far the government has gone – and how fearful it is that the public might start to notice (see Life during Wartime, 7/17/02).
July 25, 2002: A nation of spies Despite bitter criticism from many members of Congress and numerous civil liberties groups, Ashcroft announces he will go forward with "Operation TIPS," a plan to encourage letter carriers, utility workers, delivery people, and others to monitor "suspicious" activities around the nation. The program, which seeks to turn millions of people into domestic spies, wins praise from James Hoffa Jr., president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who says that his members will happily participate.
Details on anti-immigrant crackdown drawn from an excellent memo by Jeanne A. Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Additional material thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (www.aclunc.org/911/chronology.html). Summary of USA PATRIOT Act thanks to Alan Graf, cochair, policy board, Portland Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. E-mail Tim Redmond at email@example.com.