by Ralph Nader
September 3, 2003
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft are testing the American people as to whether violations of the U.S. Constitution by the Executive branch of government are to be viewed as mere technicalities or a growing threat to the fabric of liberty, privacy, due process and fair trials in our country.
Of course, these men are verbally reassuring while they conduct their "war on terrorism." President Bush says "we will not allow this enemy to win the war by restricting our freedoms." Last September, Attorney General Ashcroft said "We're not sacrificing civil liberties. We're securing civil liberties."
Then Orwellian-like they swing into action. Arrests without charges. Imprisonment indefinitely without lawyers. Secret indefinite jailings for people who are just considered "material witnesses," not accused of any crimes.
If Bush-Cheney-Ashcroft want to shove the U.S. courts aside, then just call someone -- even an American citizen -- an "enemy combatant" and throw him into the brig without charges and without a lawyer. That way, neither the prisoner nor the courts will have a chance to question the all-powerful White House prosecutors. One can almost hear James Madison who warned over two centuries ago that "The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judicial, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." Lucky for the Bush triumverate that Madison and Jefferson are not around today!
Then there is the dragnet approach to law enforcement where all Americans are suspect until proved otherwise. The federal snoopers can search your house and business without notifying you simply by asking a secret court for a warrant -- a court that to anyone's knowledge has never said no. The Triumverate can go to libraries and bookstores to find out what you have been reading and prohibit the librarian or storeowner from telling you or anyone about their demand.
The Triumverate can listen in on conversations between lawyers and their clients in federal prisons. They can access your computer records, e-mails, medical files, financial information on what is essentially an enforcement whim.
Bye bye to what the Constitution meant by that great phrase of restraint called "probable cause." Without "probable cause", the Triumverate agents can covertly attend and monitor public meetings, including places of worship. This was even too much for House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Republican James Sensenbrenner who objected vainly to such amorphous surveillance guidelines.
Brandishing the word "terror" in every direction, the Triumverate is becoming a law unto itself -- chilling the Congress, intimidating the Democrats (what!? you're soft on terror), seriously distracting away from domestic necessities, draining the federal budget into a great swamp of deficits to pay for a garrison state and its foreign adventures and, most important for Bush, scaring the public into nice poll ratings for the White House.
Conservative Republicans have opposed ever over-reaching seizures by the Triumverate -- such as setting up a TIPS program that would have enlisted millions of postal workers, deliverymen, truckers and service workers who have access to homes and offices to report on any "suspicious" talk or activities. Toward a nation of snoopers. Congressional conservatives and liberals joined together to stop both this craziness and the Rumsfeldian fantasy called a "Total Information Awareness Program" rooted in a gigantic computer dragnet of detailed information about all Americans so that a new computer software brain might find some actionable patterns.
Dragnets, once out of the neighborhood, are a notoriously inefficient and angering enforcement instrument. It makes for sloth while giving the impression of dutifullness.
Never one to miss destroying what he says he is protecting -- our freedoms and fairness (due process) -- John Ashcroft is ready to send Congress this draft proposal which is being called "Patriot II". It was named after the first so-called Patriot Act which passed in a Congressional panic on a day in October 2001 when no Representative or Senator had a chance to read the 342 page bill, except perhaps the only "no" vote in the Senate, Russ Feingold (D-WI) and a few House members flipping pages furiously.
Patriot II would turn the Triumverate into a virtual Junta. Among its provisions is one that could strip an American citizen of his/her citizenship if the government believes the person was providing "material support" to a group designated as engaged in "terrorist activities." Who defines these terms? Why the Ashcroft prosecutors. And you won't be surprised to learn that the provisions and guidelines allow almost total discretion to allow the Triumverate to mean whatever it wants them to mean. With such license, the government can secretly search your premises to all suspected "criminal cases" not just ones deemed terroristic.
Who is speaking up? Besides the civil liberties groups, sometimes the American Bar Association and a few stalwart law professors, there is what author Nat Hentoff calls the "gathering resistance" of towns. That's right! Over one hundred towns and growing are passing ordinances or resolutions saying enough is enough. They will not cooperate with officials --federal or otherwise -- who are violators of the Bill of Rights and civil liberties. Many ofthese communities, which are being joined by spontaneous citizen gatherings, are urging repeal of the offensive parts of the Patriot Act.
Hentoff's new and spine-curling book of what the Triumverate has been doing -- that is just the non-secret tip of the secret iceberg -- is called The War on the Bill of Rights. (Seven Stories Press. See firstname.lastname@example.org). Publication date is September 15 when Hentoff, a veteran civil-liberties defender, journeys around the country showing that Bush was right on one election promise -- being a uniter, not a divider. Bush has united both liberals and conservatives in rising opposition to his government of men, not of laws and constitution.
Ralph Nader is America’s leading consumer advocate. He is the founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen, and has twice run for President as a Green Party candidate. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martin’s Press, 2002)