Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York metropolitan area.
At a May 28 New York County Lawyers' Association panel on "Terrorism and the Constitution: Do Terrorists Have Civil Rights?" Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) began by stating that in almost all wars the U.S. has fought, it has taken measures that compromise civil rights. These include, he said, the 1798 Alien Sedition Act, the 1917 espionage act and Palmer raids, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Mc-Carthyism during the Cold War, and COINTEL during the Vietnamese War. Few people today defend these actions, he noted, and in each case apologies were required.
According to Nadler, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee's Constitution subcommittee, and whose district includes "ground zero," the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act will be added to this list one day. After working on a compromise bill, the Judiciary Committee--normally the most polarized in the House--passed the final version unanimously. Its members felt that the bill added useful tools to fight terrorism without skirting civil liberties. The House Republican leadership, however, along with Attorney General John Ashcroft, threw out the committee's bill and wrote a new one, Nadler said. Only two copies of the new 187-page bill were printed at 10:00 a.m., and three hours later the bill was passed by the House.
It was clear, said Nadler, that most members had not read the bill for which they voted. It includes all the provisions that did not make it into the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act because they were considered too invasive of civil liberties. Describing the USA PATRIOT Act as an extreme danger to civil rights, Nadler pointed out that it allows for indefinite detention for minor visa violations, expanded use of government surveillance, physical searches and wire taps of anybody, not just suspected terrorists and greatly expands secret searches.
Sohail Mohammed, counsel to the American Muslim Union, is an immigration lawyer who represents 18 Muslim detainees, not one of whom has been charged with terrorism or anything else. All were arrested for minor immigration violations or for working without a proper visa. Although these are civil violations, the detainees are kept handcuffed and shackled. All the proceedings are secret, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and immigration court provide no information to the detainees' families and lawyers, or to the press.
Mohammed described how one of his clients, an Egyptian national, was brought into the system. The client asked a policeman for directions. The policeman responded, "You sound foreign. Show me your passport." The client's visa had recently expired, so the policeman arrested him. FBI agents then interrogated him for two hours with questions like "How many times do you pray?" and "Why do you make your women wear those things?" After the FBI cleared him, the INS kept him in jail for four and a half months, then sent him back to Egypt with no advance warning and no opportunity to tell his family. But, Mohammed said, his client's troubles are not over. The Egyptian secret service met his plane, assuming that the U.S. would not have jailed him for no reason.
Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said Americans should be suspicious of having to choose between freedom and security, because both life and liberty are inalienable rights. Some post-9/11 Bush administration policies, he charged, have allowed the executive branch to usurp its authority, and the legislative branch--i.e., Congress--for the most part has allowed it to happen. Siegel said that the most frustrating trend he has encountered in his 30 years of practicing civil liberty law is increased secrecy. While the government admits to detaining 1,200 people since 9/11, he noted, most people think the number actually is much higher, and the attorney general refuses to disclose their identities, locations, or charges against them. …