Sunday, June 04, 2006

The War on Dissent

Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act defines terrorism as acts that “appear to be intended ... to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion,” which is vague enough to include acts of civil disobedience and protest. Administration officials often argue that the definition must remain vague so as to efficiently apprehend terroists and will not be used to intimidate or prosecute dissenters.

However, a simple analysis of who has been investigated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force tells a different story. The truth is that the FBI has accumulated 1,173 pages of documents on the ACLU and 2,383 pages on Greenpeace- this according to a New York Times report (July 18, 2005). An influential anti-war organization, United for Peace and Justice, has also been under intense FBI surveliance. These are just a few of the high profile critics of the administration being targeted by a sub-agency responsible for investigating terrorist threats.

The Congress perceived the problem and legislated that the President must inform Congress on how the FBI was using the Patriot Act. The President, in signing the renewed Patriot Act, attached a signing statement, essentially proclaiming that he did not feel compelled to comply with the provision.

He wrote: ''The executive branch shall construe the provisions . . . that call for furnishing information to entities outside the executive branch . . . in a manner consistent with the president's constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch and to withhold information . . . "

In other words, the executive branch has the constitutional authority to ignore the Congress on such matters- according to Bush. This is consistent with the administrations view of an all-powerful unitary executive. This constitutional authority is far from being expressly granted and the interpretation is favored by a smail minority of legal scholars.

Such a powerful executive is viewed by many to be a threat to the seperation of powers and to the rights of American citizens. There is a history of this type of abuse. During the Cold War the NSA, FBI and CIA conducted mass surveillance of civil rights and antiwar organizations. Dr. Martin Luther King was among those tracked and branded as "a subversive" and a "security threat." The information gathered by these agencies was used to intimidate and undermine the work of legitimate political organizations and leaders.

The Senate’s Church Committee hearings of the 1970's revealed these tactics and led to the enactment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Senator Frank Church warned that the NSA's “capability at any time could be turned around on the American people...and no American would have any privacy left … There would be no place to hide.”

The public must not accept a roll-back in these protections. They arose in response to abuses that occured in a similar time- when security concerns often blinded the public and government actors. The right to protest is essential to democracy, especially during times of war and unrest. To hand absolute power to the executive is a dangerous proposition and could easily produce a situation where the people no longer have any control over the government.

Some will say that if it helps to stop terrorism than its worth sacrificing some rights. I contend that it is never wise to sacrifice fundamental rights- but beyond that- this is not an effective counter-terrorism strategy. The FBI should be focused on serious national security threats, not Greenpeace, the ACLU, PETA or Move On. These organizations may be a threat to the political status quo, but they are not a threat to security. The greatest threat to liberty in America is an unchecked executive branch.