"Homeland Security": Round-ups, Wiretaps, Secret Hearings and Censorship

Revolutionary Worker #1123, October 21, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

In early October, a hearing was held in a San Diego courtroom to determine if the authorities could hold three students as "material witnesses" in the U.S. government's investigation following the September 11 attacks. The hearing was closed to the public, and legal paperwork related to the case was kept secret. The judge cited "national security" as the reason for the secrecy--and then sealed his own order justifying the secrecy. A lawyer for the students said he was not even told where his clients were being held and was not allowed to contact them. "I'm not even allowed to say whether they were in court," he said.

What happened to these three students is by no means an isolated case. As of the second week of October, the federal authorities had detained more than 700 people since September 11. Attorney General Ashcroft called for a "national neighborhood watch"--saying that people should report any "suspicious" people to the authorities. By the end of September, Ashcroft announced that FBI agents were following up on 200,000 "leads." The number of people detained in secrecy will certainly climb higher.

The Associated Press noted on October 4 that the federal investigation "is being conducted with closed-court hearings and sealed documents on a scale legal experts say may be unprecedented." The AP report pointed out that various aspects of some criminal cases in recent years were kept secret, including in the U.S. government's persecution of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee on charges of spying. The AP went on to report: "But Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in constitutional law, could think of no other time in American history when the government had used so much judicial secrecy in a criminal investigation. 'What's different here, as far as we can know, is the scale of the operation, the number of people involved,' he said."

What is even more alarming is that these mass detentions and secret courts are only one part of the police-state actions that the U.S. government has carried out--and is planning--in the aftermath of September 11. If the government had tried to carry out such measures two months ago, it would have been met with huge outrage and opposition. Now, the powers in this country are rushing to shove these unprecedented measures down people's throats in the name of "homeland security."

Increasing Police Powers to Unprecedented Levels

As we go to press, the U.S. Congress is about to pass a bill that will dramatically increase the power of the U.S. police apparatus. The way the new law has gone through the Congress in itself shows the extreme steps that those at the top levels of the power structure are taking, going against even their own norms and rules. Originally there were two versions of the bill--the Senate's and the House's, which put some limits on the dramatic expansion of police powers in the Senate version. There were reports of negotiations to work out the differences. But at the last minute, the House Republican leadership, working closely with the Bush administration, substituted the Senate version for the House's version, simply bypassing the House's Judiciary Committee. Then this Senate bill--which most of the House members had not even read--was bulldozed through the House for approval. According to the New York Times, "Many Democrats were furious, and even some Republicans voiced dismay." But in the end, the House approved the bill by a large margin.

There are some secondary differences between the Senate bill--known as the USA Act (for "Uniting and Strengthening America Act of 2001")--and the version passed by the House. But the following are reported to be the main features of the new law:

* Immigrants without U.S. citizenship can be detained for up to seven days without being charged with any crime--based merely on the claim by the U.S. Attorney General that the immigrants are a "national security threat." According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the wording of the USA Act left open the possibility that immigrants could be held indefinitely without charges.

* The law creates a new crime of "domestic terrorism." The ACLU points out, "By expanding the definition of terrorism in such a way, the bill could potentially allow the government to levy heavy penalties for relatively minor offenses, including political protests." This provision could give police even wider reach. The ACLU comments, "Under this legislation, the dominos would fall. Those who provide lodging or other assistance to these 'domestic terrorists' could have their homes wiretapped and could be prosecuted."

* The law authorizes "sneak and peek searches." The ACLU explains that this provision "authorizes expanded use of covert searches for any criminal investigation, thus allowing the government to enter your home, office or other private place and conduct a search, take photographs, and download your computer files without notifying you until later."

* The law authorizes "roving wiretaps"--so that any phone used by a targeted individual can be tapped, as opposed to one specific phone. The law also makes it easier for the police to obtain wiretap orders from courts and gives the police wider ability to seize voice mail messages.

* Law enforcement officials now have more power to subpoena e-mail and Internet records that reveal to whom and when a computer user sent e-mail messages as well as what web sites the user visited.

* The FBI can now share wiretap and grand jury information without a court order with other agencies like the CIA, NSA (National Security Agency), and the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).

* The new law grants the authorities greater ability to demand student records from schools. According to ACLU, the law "allows law enforcement to access, use and disseminate highly personal information about American and foreign students."

Repression Shifted into High Gear

As the secret detentions and hearings of hundreds of people show, the government has already taken extraordinary steps to expand government and police powers.

On October 10, the five major TV networks announced they had reached a joint agreement to limit the airing of future videotape messages from Osama bin Laden or others associated with him. The agreement came at the request of the Bush White House, which claimed that bin Laden might be sending "coded messages" though the videos. This was clearly a justification for increased censorship--since these videos are shown by media worldwide and are available on the Internet. The New York Times noted the networks' self-censorship was "the first time in memory that the networks had agreed to a joint arrangement to limit their perspective news coverage." And overall, the Bush administration has been taking major steps to limit news coverage of the U.S. military and of government information in general. In the name of stopping "leaks," Bush officials have threatened to put severe limits on briefings to the Congress about the administration's plans.

FBI agents have been fanning out across the country to conduct thousands of "interviews." In early October, the FBI announced that its agents were shifting their focus from investigation and prosecution of the September 11 attacks to prevention of future attacks. Appearing on ABC TV's Nightline, a former Clinton administration official pointed out one important aspect of what this shift means: Agents don't have to worry about breaking official laws when they question and arrest people, since they are not so concerned about evidence being ruled inadmissible in court.

Even before the passing of the new law, the FBI has been approaching schools across the country to get student records. The Boston Globe reported on October 3: "More than 195 colleges have provided data about their foreign students to the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the three weeks since the terrorist attacks, according to a new survey of 1,060 U.S. colleges that the Globe obtained." Among the information turned over have been bank account numbers, credit card data, and other private financial records of foreign students.


On October 12--after the House approved the Senate version of the "anti-terrorism" bill--Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington National Office, said, "Most Americans do not recognize that Congress has just passed a bill that would give the government expanded power to invade our privacy, imprison people without due process and punish dissent."

The rulers of this country are portraying their new "USA Act" and other measures expanding their police powers as steps they are taking in the interests of the people. But the reality is that these are dangerous developments that attack the basic rights of the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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