Feb
12
2003

Muted Response to Ashcroft's Sneak Attack on Liberties

In an attempt to further increase the government's surveillance and law enforcement powers, and decrease judicial review and protections of civil liberties, 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 (http://www.public-i.org).

According to 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, says CPI: "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 consent decrees passed before September 11, 2001 that do not relate to civil rights violations. Consent decrees are legal agreements that limit law enforcement's ability to gather information about individuals and groups. Many, such as New York City's Handschu agreement (which was severely weakened by a federal court ruling on Tuesday), were arrived at in response to police abuses, including the harassment of social justice groups.

Enable the government to "expatriate" U.S. citizens "if, with the intent to relinquish his nationality, he becomes a member of, or provides material support to, a group that the United Stated 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 a drastic action such as serving in the military of a state that is at 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 the 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 non-violent civil disobedience.

The Patriot Act II draft also includes measures to weaken the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) system by curtailing public access to information about accused terrorists being held in custody, and by restricting access to the "worst case scenario" reports that companies are required to file with the Environmental Protection Agency about the potential effects of environmental disasters.

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 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 than that, but even so, their coverage 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 Chicago Tribune printed a version of the Los Angeles Times story, and New York's Newsday ran an article about Patriot II on page two. Aside from 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), that was the extent of the stories Ashcroft's plans generated.

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. (See "Are You a Terrorist?", Extra! 11-12/01, http://www.fair.org/extra/0111/usa-patriot.html.) Media must not let this happen a second time-- there is too much at stake.

Read the Center for Public Integrity's Report on "Patriot Act II," along with the full draft legislation:http://www.public-i.org/dtaweb/report.asp?ReportID=502&L1=10&L2=10&L3=0&L4=0&L5=0

If you'd like to encourage media outlets to investigate this story, contact information is available at: http://www.fair.org/media-contact-list.html