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Ashcroft demands more power
Big Brother gets bigger

February 21, 2003 | Page 5

NICOLE COLSON looks at John Ashcroft's new assault on our rights.

BIG BROTHER will get even bigger if John Ashcroft gets his way. The attorney general is planning a long list of new repressive measures to open the door further to government intrusion in our daily lives--and give the Feds even more power to crack down on dissent.

Earlier this month, a draft proposal for the "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003" was leaked to the Center for Public Integrity by a Justice Department employee. "There are some truly breathtaking provisions here," Jim Dempsey of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, told the Washington Post. "In some respects, it's bolder even than the USA PATRIOT Act."

That's saying something. The USA PATRIOT Act, passed in the aftermath of September 11, gave the government vast new police powers. But Ashcroft wants more.

What does his new proposal include? How about presuming people guilty until they're proven innocent? The "Prohibition of Disclosure of Terrorism Investigation Detainee Information," provision would allow the Justice Department to refuse to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests about suspects in government custody.

That means people like Rabih Haddad--the Muslim cleric who was picked up during the September 11 investigation and has been held in prison for more than a year by the Justice Department for a minor immigration violation--could languish behind bars indefinitely without the Feds ever having to even release their names or the charges against them, let alone offer any proof of their guilt.

Another section of the draft legislation would allow the government to create a "Terrorist Identification Database"--by forcibly taking DNA samples from anyone that it deems a "suspected terrorist."

Of course, the Justice Department's definition of "terrorism" is pretty loose to begin with. Under the USA PATRIOT Act, you can be labeled a terrorist for having an association with a member of a suspected terrorist group, or if you ever supported any group that the State Department designates as terrorist--even if that "support" came in the form of a donation to a charitable organization that, months or years later, was declared to be a terrorist group.

Ashcroft's proposal would give the green light to FBI and police spying on political activists. The legislation would eliminate pre-September 11 legal restrictions--except those related to racial profiling or civil rights violations--that limit law enforcement from gathering information about individuals and organizations. This would get rid of some of the most important constraints on the power of the state that Congress was forced to impose in the 1970s after the Watergate scandal.

Some police haven't bothered waiting for new legislation to give them this authority. In Denver, for example, antiwar activists learned last year that police had created "spy files" on more than 3,000 activists and 200 civic groups for their organizing activities or participation in rallies. The American Friends Service Committee, a group of Quakers, is among the groups labeled "criminal extremists" by Denver police.

Ashcroft is even hoping to gain the power to strip people of their U.S. citizenship. Under the Constitution, U.S. citizens have to state their intention to give up their citizenship. But under the new proposal, the Justice Department wants to change the rules--so that someone would effectively renounce his citizenship if "he becomes a member of, or provides material support to, a group that the United Stated has designated as a 'terrorist organization.'"

In other words, if you make a charitable contribution to a group that later is accused of funding terrorists, you could be "expatriated."

When news of the Ashcroft proposal first emerged, the Bush administration tried to claim that the leaked draft legislation--dated January 9, 2003--was only in the "planning stages." But the Center for Public Integrity unearthed a memo, dated the very next day, which asked Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) for feedback on the "draft legislative proposal."

Ashcroft isn't apologizing. "The terrorists have an interest in very serious weapons of chemistry, evil biology and even radiological consequences," the attorney general fumed. "Every day, I tell the staff at the Justice Department: 'Think anew. The world is changing. What are the ways we can safeguard the American people against attack?' I say, 'Think outside the box,' but I always say, 'Think inside the Constitution.'"

He's got to be kidding! As the San Francisco Chronicle put it in a recent editorial, the measures that Ashcroft is proposing are nothing less than "instruments of repression, used by totalitarian states."

So far, Democratic Party leaders in Congress have been largely silent on Ashcroft's planned expansion of Big Brother. In fact, leading Democrats with their eye on the party's presidential nomination--like Sens. Joe Lieberman and John Edwards--last week attacked the administration for not being tough enough on "homeland security." Do they want to hand over all our rights to Ashcroft's goons?

Fortunately, the proposed legislation has sparked outrage from civil liberties groups and antiwar activists. For many people, the Department of Homeland Insecurity's hysteria about duct tape and plastic sheeting only hardened their opposition to the Bush administration.

It's no secret to the more than 1 million people who took to the streets last weekend to protest the U.S. war on Iraq that the Bush gang is carrying out a war at home, too. We can't let John Ashcroft take away our rights without a fight.

A new giveaway to corporate polluters

JOHN ASHCROFT even managed to throw in a bonus for corporate polluters in his new Big Brother legislation. Currently, under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency requires private companies that use potentially dangerous chemicals to produce a "worst case scenario" report detailing the effect of the chemical release.

Under the new legislation, access to these reports would be restricted--meaning that the details and risks posed by accidents at industrial facilities could be kept secret from reporters, workers and community members. "I happen to know that's been the chemical lobbyists' dream for a long time," said Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity.

Another provision of the new law would grant corporations that violate national security laws immunity from civil lawsuits--as long as the corporation volunteers the information.

Innocent victims of the witch-hunt

HAS THE USA PATRIOT Act made us safer? That was the excuse that John Ashcroft and the rest of Washington put forward for tearing up the Constitution--that unprecedented measures were needed to stop terrorist attacks like the September 11 hijackings.

But while the Justice Department is prosecuting more people on charges of "terrorism," the vast majority of the cases are completely unrelated to violent activities, according to a report released this week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research group based in Syracuse, N.Y.

The report says that in the year after September 11, federal prosecutions of crimes connected with terrorism and domestic security grew by more than 10 times, to 1,208 cases, up from 115 the previous year. But the prison sentences handed out to defendants in these cases actually shrank, from an average of more than two years prior to September 11 to just two months.

That's because the vast majority of so-called "terrorism" prosecutions have been for minor crimes like document fraud, identification theft and immigration violations.

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