In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress is considering anti-terrorism legislation that could seriously weaken civil liberties in the U.S. Yet the three major networks' nightly news shows have done little reporting on the issue.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warns that the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 includes provisions that could "deny meaningful hearings to immigrants, minimize judicial supervision of electronic surveillance by law enforcement authorities and vastly expand the government's ability to conduct secret searches." In response to Attorney General John Ashcroft's efforts to speed the bill through Congress last week, over 120 groups joined the ACLU in an unusually broad left-right coalition to urge the government not to undermine liberty in the name of security. (See http://www.aclu.org/safeandfree/.)
Despite the magnitude of the changes the bill proposes, a search of the Nexis database of news transcripts shows that neither CBS Evening News nor NBC Nightly News has aired a single report exploring the legislation's potential impact. ABC World News Tonight has aired one.
CBS Evening News touched on the issue in a two-sentence report stating that George Bush had asked Congress "to approve expanded federal authority to conduct wiretaps and detain suspects" and noting that some in Congress "aren't so sure" the proposal won't violate civil liberties (9/25/01). No further details about the legislation were provided.
NBC Nightly News has gone so far as to state as fact the idea that security concerns will necessitate a loss of civil liberties, but Nexis searches failed to turn up a single mention of Ashcroft's anti-terrorism bill on the show. Introducing a related report (9/21/01) 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," stating flatly: "The price? Increased surveillance and inconvenience." The report-- which ends by saying that "no one really knows how much authority the new security czar will really have"-- suggests that to stay safe, Americans must surrender liberties without even pausing to ask which ones.
Commendably, ABC's World News Tonight (9/25/01) did devote a segment to 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," World News Tonight reporter Dean Reynolds (9/21/01) 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."
Ashcroft's proposed legislation would significantly expand law enforcement's powers in several ways, but among the most serious are provisions that would, as noted in the ABC report, allow the Attorney General to order the indefinite detention of any non-citizen, without specifying what kind of evidence would be required. In addition, any non-citizen could be deported if they had ever materially supported the activities-- lawful or otherwise-- of any organization labeled "terrorist" by the U.S. government, even if the group was not considered terrorist at the time.
Ashcroft's drive to expand wiretapping powers has been widely described as an anti-terrorism measure, but ACLU points out that under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FBI can already obtain wiretaps in investigations of terrorism without showing probable cause. Ashcroft's bill would extend this authority to ordinary criminal cases, effectively removing an important check on the FBI's domestic surveillance efforts.
The bill would also grant the government the authority to request secret searches in any criminal case-- meaning that law enforcement could more easily search an individual's property without notifying them. "This vast expansion of power," says the ACLU, "goes far beyond anything necessary to conduct terrorism investigations."
ACTION: Please contact CBS and NBC to ask that they devote serious attention to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 and its potential impact on civil liberties. You might also encourage ABC to continue its coverage of the issue.
CONTACT:CBS Evening News with Dan Rather
Email Form: http://www.cbsnews.com/feedback/fb_news_form.shtml
NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw
ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings