Media passivity enables rollback of civil liberties
On October 26, George Bush signed into law “anti-terrorism” legislation that seriously eroded civil liberties in the United States. Law enforcement’s power to conduct surveillance and secret searches has been vastly increased, legal immigrants may now be indefinitely detained, and the CIA has been authorized to resume spying on Americans. In true Orwellian style, the bill is called the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001–for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.
Among the sweeping changes implemented by the bill is the introduction of the broadly-defined crime of “domestic terrorism.” Domestic terrorism is now defined in part as any 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 a civilian population” or “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”
The legal definition of “terrorism” is crucial because the USA PATRIOT act gives law enforcement broad new powers to be used against “terrorist” individuals and groups. The American Civil Liberties Union (10/23/01) warns that this new definition will “sweep in people who engage in acts of political protest” if those acts could be deemed dangerous to human life. Actions which damage property or endanger people were already illegal–reclassifying these offenses as “terrorist” while removing judicial checks on law enforcement is a recipe for the political prosecution of dissent.
Also at risk under the new law is anyone who so much as provides lodging to a “terrorist.” If you let an activist sleep on your couch while they’re in town for a protest, and they’re later arrested for some risky civil disobedience, you could be charged with “harboring a terrorist,” a new crime that can land you in jail for 10 years.
Given that the FBI has tried to tar peaceful U.S. activists as terrorists well before September 11, such scenarios aren’t far-fetched. Globalization activists in particular have been singled out for surveillance and infiltration over the last few years. Last May, in testimony before Congress about the “Threat of Terrorism to the United States,” FBI Director Louis Freeh named “left-wing extremist groups” such as Reclaim the Streets–a group that organizes street parties–as “a potential threat” (In These Times, 8/28/01).
But the legislation’s impact will go far beyond “terrorist” groups, even as broadly as that term is now defined. Among other things, the ACLU (9/20/01) pointed out that under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FBI already had the authority to obtain wiretaps in investigations of terrorism without showing probable cause. The new law extends this authority to ordinary criminal cases, effectively removing an important check on the FBI’s domestic surveillance efforts. “This vast expansion of power,” said the ACLU, “goes far beyond anything necessary to conduct terrorism investigations.”
There are, of course, many reasons that the anti-terrorism legislation was rushed through with so little time for public debate, but media’s complacency certainly didn’t help. Mainstream news outlets did cover the progress of the proposed anti-terror bills through the House and Senate, but did relatively little to alert the public to how fundamental and far-reaching the proposed expansions of law enforcement’s powers were, and provided little information about the nuts and bolts of the legislation.
For a rough indicator of how widely the specific details of the proposed legislation were reported, FAIR searched transcripts, wire service stories and major newspapers archived in the Nexis news database for the key phrase “intimidation or coercion” (9/11/01-10/11/01). The phrase turned up in only two relevant news articles (Washington Post, 10/2/01; L.A. Times, 10/2/01) and in an editorial in support of the legislation (Newsday, 10/3/01). That this crucial language was so rarely reported suggests that media for the most part failed to ask the basic question of what kinds of activities the “anti-terrorism” bill was designed to combat.
Coverage was even more scant on the three major networks’ nightly news shows. During the first round of debate over an earlier version of the legislation, according to a September 27 search of the Nexis media database, neither CBS Evening News nor NBC Nightly News aired a single segment exploring the legislation’s potential impact.
CBS Evening News (9/25/01) touched on the issue in two sentences, noting that George Bush had asked Congress “to approve expanded federal authority to conduct wiretaps and detain suspects,” and adding that some in Congress “aren’t so sure” the proposal won’t violate civil liberties. No further details about the legislation were provided.
NBC Nightly News (9/21/01) flatly stated that security concerns will necessitate restrictions on civil liberties, but as of September 27 the show had not so much as mentioned the bill that would create those restrictions. Introducing a related report about the newly established Office of Homeland Security, anchor Tom Brokaw said that the office’s name “sounds like something out of a totalitarian regime,” but nonetheless “the attacks proved that something in America has to change.”
NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell went on to report that after the terrorist attacks “there will be a cost to our civil liberties,” bluntly asserting: “The price? Increased surveillance and inconvenience.” The report–which ended by saying that “no one really knows how much authority the new security czar will really have”–suggested that to stay safe, Americans must surrender liberties without even pausing to ask which ones.
ABC‘s World News Tonight (9/25/01) did air one segment about the proposed anti-terrorism legislation, reporting that it would
give the government more power to spy on Americans here at home, monitor Internet use with little oversight from a judge, lock up immigrants whom the government says might be a threat to national security without presenting evidence.
A few days earlier, however, after reporting poll numbers indicating that many Americans fear losing their liberties to “the fight against terror” (9/21/01), World News Tonight reporter Dean Reynolds managed to conclude just the opposite–that “right now the calls for action are drowning out the second thoughts. As one veteran of World War II put it today, if you have to violate freedom to protect the masses, go ahead and do it.”
More information on the new anti-terrorism law and emerging civil liberties concerns can be found at the ACLU’s special site, www.aclu.org/safeandfree/.