Civil Liberties get the axe
“Terrorist threat” rationale precipitates erosion of civil liberties and an increasingly secretive government

September 19th, 2001

By Fhar Miess
The Alarm! Newspaper collective

A cynical consensus is building on Capitol Hill to take the opportunities presented by last week’s attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to surge forward with the most sweeping erosions of civil liberties since anti-terrorism laws passed in 1996 in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

On Thursday, September 13, the Senate already passed legislation which loosened restrictions on wiretapping. In a floor speech that same day, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) called for a global prohibition on encryption products without backdoors for government surveillance, a cause championed by security zealots in Washington for nearly a decade.

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has asked Congress for a series of changes in existing policy, ostensibly aimed at thwarting the effectiveness of terrorist groups organizing in the United States. Realistically, this is likely to be used to stifle legitimate dissent against government.

Ashcroft is also instituting structural changes in the way investigations are conducted which will most likely outlive the current investigation into last week’s attacks. Most notably, Ashcroft announced the creation of anti-terrorism task forces in every U.S. Attorney Office in the country. Ashcroft notes that “task forces will be a part of a national network that will coordinate the dissemination of information and the development of a strategy to disrupt, dismantle and punish terrorist organizations throughout the country.”

Such task forces are already being used, in conjunction with easily-abused grand jury investigations, to harass environmental, animal-rights and anti-capitalist activists for their dissenting views and organizing. Ashcroft’s language is reminiscent of the language of COINTELPRO, which was designed to “misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize “specific individuals and groups. Congress ordered COINTELPRO discontinued after investigators found it to be little more than “a sophisticated vigilante operation.”

One of the country’s most active anti-terrorism task forces can be found in Portland, Oregon, which is, coincidentally, also the site of the largest anti-war demonstration since the attacks (see RESISTANCE page 2). In a May 10 statement before the Senate Committees on Appropriations, Armed Services and Select Committee on Intelligence, FBI director Louis Freeh listed Reclaim the Streets, a group which stages impromptu street parties with music systems and dancing, among a host of other terrorist groups, including Usama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organization. This designation would be cause for mirth were it not for the gravity of the implications for state repression of activists simply for throwing orchestrated street parties.

In addition, the Justice Department has drafted proposals now before Congress for the expansion of powers to detain or deport immigrants suspected of terrorist activity. If these proposals are passed, a German with the misfortune of having been dancing in the streets at an RTS party might just be deported to her nation of citizenship, where government officials are rethinking their policies on suspect profiling.

Olaf Scholz, interior minister of Hamburg, said in an interview that the government would start profiling suspects—taking actions, such as detentions or searches, based on racial or other criteria. Profiling is banned in some countries but allowed under German laws passed in the 1970s, when the country was hit by a wave of bombings and assassinations carried out by the Red Army Faction. It has rarely been used since then.

While the U.S. intelligence community is busy in a war of attrition with our civil liberties, the U.S. government is taking more liberties unto itself, especially where privacy and non-disclosure is concerned. Military operations in particular are being conducted in unprecedented secrecy, with compartmentalization insuring the fewest possible number of people with classified information and press restrictions not seen in years. Many government web sites have gone blank or have not been updated since before September 11th’s attack.

Some of our readers perhaps consider these worthwhile sacrifices in order to live in safety. But, first, they will come for the Arabs, and then they’ll come for the anti-capitalists. We have to wonder when they’ll be coming for you. Likely they’ll have gotten to us first, so don’t count on us to be able to sound the alarm when they do.

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