Citizens must fight attacks on our rights

October 28, 2002|By Susan Goering

SEPT. 11 changed us in many ways.

Some of these changes, such as the renewed sense of national unity and purpose, are heartening. Yet two things are deeply disturbing. One is the government's premise that we cannot be safe from terrorist attacks and still enjoy our right to privacy and other constitutional rights. The second is the Bush administration's subversion of our bedrock system of checks and balances.

Under the guise of national security, Attorney General John Ashcroft and the administration have granted themselves a wealth of new powers, unleashed the full fury of the Justice Department on new immigrants, set up a vast new domestic spy network and sought to interrogate 8,000 people on little or no evidence of wrongdoing.

The administration's calculated attempts to limit our constitutional rights and liberties could change the definition of freedom in America.

But fortunately there is an increasing groundswell of concern in America about President Bush's and Mr. Ashcroft's determination to cut back on our freedoms in the name of safety. The American public knows that our safety can be guaranteed along with our traditional right to say what we want, befriend whomever we want, worship however we want and be who we are without fear that our lawful actions will land us on the government's radar screen.

It's time to roll back policies, executive orders and legislation that suppress American liberty and that are ineffective or unnecessary.

First, we must reverse the attorney general's recent unilateral decision to rewrite guidelines that limited the FBI's domestic spying. These guidelines were adopted after the Church Commission hearings of the mid-1970s disclosed the FBI's covert program to destroy the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others who publicly disagreed with the government.

These new guidelines allow the FBI to conduct joint operations with municipal, county and state police departments that include spying on First Amendment-protected activities.

Local governments legally can and should tell their law enforcement officers not to spy without evidence of crime. Indeed, there's a growing grass-roots movement to pass city council resolutions blocking local law enforcement from engaging in intrusive federal actions that threaten civil liberties.

Second, the ACLU is already working with members of Congress to introduce legislation to repeal some of the more offensive provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, with the aim of ensuring that:

Wiretapping is subject to meaningful judicial review.

Law enforcement agents provide notice when searching a home.

Noncitizens who are not dangerous terrorists not be subject to indefinite detention.

Dissident groups engaging in lawful activities -- such as Operation Rescue (the right-to-life movement that targets abortion clinics), Greenpeace and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- are not swept up in an overly broad definition of domestic terrorism.

We will join ranks nationally with the American Library Association to publicize the fact that librarians must turn over to the FBI the names of citizens and what they read. And, even more frightening, librarians commit a crime if they even reveal that the FBI has asked for this information.

Third, we must protect basic privacy rights for all Americans.

The technological growth that fueled the economic boom of the 1990s also made possible the infrastructure to support a disturbing surveillance society.

Worse, aspects of this surveillance society are being actively promoted by the president and attorney general as essential to national security, and are gaining in acceptability.

Some members of Congress want to establish a de facto national ID card by standardizing our driver's licenses. And the Bush administration supports a registered airline passenger program called "Trusted Traveler" that could also lead to a national ID.

To fight these proposals, we've established a rare right-left coalition -- co-chaired by the Eagle Forum -- to oppose any type of national ID. We will be asking the public to help us with those efforts and to fight any effort to violate the privacy of driver's or traveler's information.

The hallmark of our democracy is an engaged public. Outreach to communities, churches, synagogues, mosques and town hall meetings across Maryland and the country can mobilize concerned Americans to protect their rights before it's too late.

It is patriotic to question the actions of an overreaching government. Now more than ever, ordinary citizens must stand up for the Bill of Rights.

Susan Goering is the executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.

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