By Dreyfuss, Robert | The Nation, March 25, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Dreyfuss, Robert, The Nation

Colin Powell has a list. And, trust me--you don't want to be on it.

Of course, you might already be on the list, but you won't find that out until a reporter calls to ask about it, or until the FBI shows up at your house at 4 am.

The list in question, or rather the lists, concern groups that the government labels foreign terrorist organizations, or FTOs, along with funders, supporters and business entities that aid them. The State Department list of FTOs, created by the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and first issued in 1997, currently includes twenty-eight groups. Since September 11, other lists have proliferated. By executive order, on September 23, President Bush--in a declaration of "national emergency"--created another list, maintained by the Treasury Department, which now contains 153 "groups, entities and individuals" whose assets are subject to seizure. Yet another list, published in the State Department's annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism," names groups that don't merit FTO designation but are considered bad guys anyway. And yet one more list, the terrorist exclusion list, set up by Attorney General Ashcroft's USA Patriot Act last October, can speed the deportation of, or deny admittance to, immigrants charged with involvement in a group on the State Department's list.

Taken together, the lists have emerged as a handy tool to suppress dissent, dissuade Americans from backing insurrectionary movements overseas, and deport immigrants tied to the groups.

Here's how it works. Under the 1996 law, passed in the wake of the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma and the first attack on the World Trade Center, every two years the State Department is required to come up with a list of organizations deemed terrorist. For each one, it creates a file--called the administrative record--which may include everything from press clippings to highly classified spy information gathered by US intelligence agencies and the Justice Department. Once listed, a group's assets are subject to being frozen, its officials and members are barred from entering the United States and any American who provides a listed group with material support or resources is a criminal who can be fined or sentenced to ten years in prison.

The law has created a bewildering tangle of law enforcement and politics that holds enormous potential for misuse and abuse. It is also as arbitrary as it is draconian: The departments of State, Treasury and Justice can tie an organization to one end or another of the "axis of evil" almost on a whim, whether they are Al Qaeda-style terrorists or a group engaged in a civil war or liberation struggle.

So far, prosecutions have been very limited, though several organizations--including Irish and Iranian ones, as we shall see--have felt a severe impact from being listed. But the sweeping powers granted the State Department give the federal government the ability to ban and effectively close down any cantankerous group that it doesn't like. "The government has carte blanche to pick and choose organizations to put on these lists," says Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who points out that foreign policy interests often determine who is added and who is not. And, she says, once a group does end up being listed, it's just about impossible to get off. "It's a highly politicized process," says Chang.

In many ways, the State Department's list-making harks back to earlier periods of repression of dissent, from the post-World War I Palmer Raids against socialists and anarchists to the 1950s McCarthyite anti-Communist hysteria. Under the new laws it is illegal to support any group designated as a terrorist organization. The fact that it is illegal for Americans to express solidarity with movements around the world--even odious ones--is shocking enough on its own. But now that President Bush is waging a global "war on terrorism," US attacks against alleged terrorists in the Philippines, Colombia, Somalia, the Middle East or elsewhere are likely to swell the list of designated terrorist groups, if only by sparking new resistance movements.

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