Reclaiming our America

January 17, 2007|By Susan Goering

As President Bush shuttles yet more troops to Iraq, the irony of his human rights policies at home and abroad grows all the more stark. How can America fight for the rule of law in other countries when we allow an American president to break the law on our own soil?

The American people voted for change. In our America, change should start with a Congress that exercises its duty to the American public to act as a check and balance, reining in abuses of executive power and restoring basic civil liberties.

In our America, people are answerable to the law and not to the hunches, suspicions or prejudices of those who happen to be in power. The Military Commissions Act passed last year allows the president to decide on a whim who is an "enemy combatant" and what constitutes torture. The president should not have the power, simply by labeling someone - even an American citizen - an enemy combatant, to then indefinitely detain him without any court review.

The new Congress should begin by restoring habeas corpus and due process rights that were gutted in the Military Commissions Act. Congress should conduct oversight hearings, then enact legislation to restore habeas corpus, ban the use of coerced evidence and limit the president's authority to define torture and abuse. It should close the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay instead of building a $125 million kangaroo-court complex there.

Our America understands that not only is torture morally reprehensible, it also can come back to haunt our soldiers when they are prisoners of war. It is time for Congress to investigate and stop the administration's torture, abuse and rendition (an outsourcing of torture to other countries). Lawmakers should appoint a special counsel or create a congressional oversight committee to determine where the illegal policies originated in the chain of command, and seek appropriate disciplinary action for those responsible.

In our America, there are no kings. No president is above the law, and every president must go to court and get a warrant to listen to our conversations and read our domestic mail. We were startled to learn in December 2005, and again recently, that the president thought otherwise. He remains recalcitrant. Congress should investigate and stop warrantless surveillance programs. After all, the law provides for emergencies, so no extra-constitutional powers are necessary to keep Americans safe.

Lawmakers must ensure vigorous oversight of the National Security Agency and reject any attempts to legalize warrantless surveillance. Congress should also ensure that the FBI focuses its investigations on people suspected of crimes rather than on law-abiding activists.

In our America, no government official can spy on us without a court warrant. Congress should protect the privacy of all Americans' personal records (including library, health and financial records) by limiting the government's authority to secretly demand them under the Patriot Act, and it should enact meaningful controls on the FBI's ability to request personal information by using national security letters, which require no judicial review. It should block unwarranted data-mining programs and prohibit the formation of centralized databases containing personal information that are not subject to adequate privacy controls.

In our America, the government is accountable to the people. It's time to shine sunlight on the Bush administration when it acts to take away our basic freedoms. Lawmakers should restore greater transparency by limiting the use of the state secrets privilege and the Sensitive Security Information designation for unclassified material. Both have been used to hide embarrassing information from the public - exposure of which would not harm national security.

For example, the administration has used the state secrets privilege in court to terminate lawsuits at their onset in order to cover up its actions and prevent embarrassment, as it did in the case of Khaled el-Masri, an innocent victim of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program who was released without ever being charged. In other cases, it has silenced national security whistleblowers and even evaded a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination.

Congress must also strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and protect whistleblowers. And in a democracy, the president should not be free, through the use of "signing statements," to ignore laws passed by Congress that specifically limit his powers, simply because he thinks that they are ill-considered.

Our America should be a moral beacon to the world. Congress should act, but ultimately it is up to all of us, the people, to hold our public servants accountable. We do that by voting, as we did last November. But these pressing matters can't wait another two years. It's time for all who value our America to issue a clarion call to each and every elected representative - now.

Susan Goering is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. Her e-mail is goering@aclu-md.org.

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