Mar 1 2003

Another Stealth Assault on Liberties?

Muted media response to Ashcroft's proposed Patriot Act II

The Department of Justice has secretly drafted a sweeping sequel to the USA Patriot Act of 2001. Despite the draft legislation’s authoritarian provisions–including one that would empower the government to strip Americans of their citizenship if they participate in the lawful activities of any group that the attorney general labels “terrorist”–mainstream U.S. media have responded with only a handful of news stories.

The news was broken on February 7 by the Center for Public Integrity, which obtained and published a full copy of the DOJ’s draft “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003” or “Patriot Act II” legislation.

According to the CPI, the January 9, 2003 draft was prepared by Attorney General John Ashcroft’s staff and has not been officially released by the DOJ. Elected officials were kept in the dark about Ashcroft’s initiative, CPI reported: “Senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee minority staff have inquired about Patriot II for months and have been told as recently as this week that there is no such legislation being planned.”

Among other things, the draft includes provisions that would:

■ Authorize a DNA database of “suspected terrorists”–a category so broadly defined that it could, according to CPI, include anyone associated with “suspected” groups, and any “noncitizens suspected of certain crimes or of having supported any group designated as terrorist.”

■ Nullify most law enforcement decrees passed before September 11, 2001 that do not relate to civil rights violations. There consent decrees are legal agreements that limit law enforcement’s ability to gather information about individuals and groups in order to curtail police abuses, including the harassment of social justice groups.

■ Enable the government to “expatriate” a U.S. citizen “if, with the intent to relinquish his nationality, he becomes a member of, or provides material support to, a groups that the United States has designated as a ‘terrorist organization.'” Currently, you must formally state your intent to give up U.S. citizenship in order to lose it, or take drastic action such as serving in the military of a state of war with the U.S. CPI warns that Patriot Act II would allow the government to “infer” that intent from an individual’s political associations, and possibly deport any citizen who participated in the work of a group that the attorney general chooses to brand as “terrorist,” even if he or she broke no laws.

These provisions build on the expanded law enforcement powers established by the first USA Patriot Act, which created a broad new category of “domestic terrorism,” a crime defined in part as activities that “involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws” and which “appear to be intended” to “intimidate or coerce” civilians or the government. In examining the measures that Patriot Act II would authorize against “suspected terrorists,” it’s important to recall that the legal definition of domestic terrorism is now so broad that it could encompass traditional forms of political protest, such as nonviolent civil disobedience.

Despite all this, the story has barely made a ripple in the U.S. news media. On PBS, Now With Bill Moyers featured an extensive interview with CPI’s Charles Lewis (2/7/03), but apart from that, a February 15 search of the national television news programs archived in the Nexis database found only one report on the DOJ’s plan for a Patriot Act II, a segment on Fox News Channel‘s The Big Story With John Gibson (2/10/03). The story was apparently ignored by ABC, CBS and NBC‘s nightly newscasts and newsmagazine shows.

It wasn’t hard for newspapers to do better, but even so, their coverage in the week after the news broke amounted to a handful of stories. Of major papers included in Nexis, the Washington Post gave the story the most prominent treatment, with a front-page article (2/8/03), a news brief (2/11/03) and an editorial (2/12/03). The New York Times and Los Angeles Times ran articles on the draft legislation the same day, but on inside pages (A10 and A24, respectively); the L.A. Times news report, and Long Island’s Newsday ran an article about Patriot II on page two. There were also a brief news item in the Seattle Times (2/8/03) and editorials in the San Francisco Chronicle and Rocky Mountain News (2/11/03). After that initial week, scattered editorials and op-eds have appeared in papers across the country, but the story has not gotten sustained journalistic scrutiny.

The fact that the DOJ has secretly prepared legislation that would fundamentally alter the protections afforded Americans by the Constitution is, by any measure, a huge story. The first USA Patriot Act was rushed through Congress in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks with very little media coverage or public debate (Extra!, 11-12/01). With essential liberties at stake, media must not let this happen a second time.