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If things go according to plan, one day from today many basic legal rights will be abolished in the United States. According to the ACLU, the USA bill (S.1510) has been passed in both the Senate and the House; they just have to do it once more having ironed out some details, and due process of law will be no more. The drafting was hasty in the Senate; the House was in such a rush to pass the bill that most representatives didn't bother to read it (even though some of them said that it was dangerous).
The page http://www.aclu.org/action/usa107.html gives some basic information about this bill. The ACLU told me that more information is available about this and other post-Sep-11 bills at http://www.aclu.org/safeandfree. According to the ACLU, S.1510 would, among other things,
Additional power for the FBI worries me, and it should worry you, because the FBI has a history of abusing its power. In the 1960s, it conducted a systematic large-scale campaign to undermine political opposition, using methods that ranged from provocateurs to death threats to framing of activists. For more information, see http://www.derechos.net/paulwolf/cointelpropapers/coinwcar3.htm.
As part of that campaign, the FBI conducted thousands of secret searches without warrants. This put the FBI in a bad light, because those searches were against the law. S.1510 would eliminate the problem by making it easy to authorize secret searches. According to the ACLU, government agents would be allowed to take away your papers as well as look at them, but only if they say it was necessary. So if something vanishes from your house, you won't know if it was a thief or the government. See http://www.aclu.org/news/2001/n101901b.html.
The bill would also allow officials to designate an organization as "terrorist" and prohibit any kind of support for it. This worries me because I am the leader of an organization. The FBI director has already called Reclaim the Streets "terrorist" (they put on surprise street parties), so who knows what would not be called "terrorist"?
But it gets worse when you combine this with civil forfeiture. Government officials would have the power to confiscate your property, simply by alleging that it has been connected with one of these "terrorist" organizations. They would not have to charge you with a crime, and they won't have to prove anything.
Actual confiscation is bad enough, but as Go players know, the threat is more powerful than the act. If the government can confiscate your property, it can use the threat of confiscation to enforce whatever demands it wishes to make.
Censorship by decree appears to have begun already in anticipation of the bill's passage. Last week I read that a web site containing old WBAI radio broadcasts had been shut down because the Office of Homeland Security had told the ISP to cut them off. The ISP told the site's operator that it had been threatened with confiscation of its assets if it did not obey. This information came with a reference to the URL http://www.wbaiaction.org/, where perhaps more information can be found.
One of the programs on that site, Radio Free Eireann, advocated removing Northern Ireland from the UK--a cause which was also supported by terrorists (or should I say former terrorists, since they have since entered the Northern Ireland parliament). It is possible that that weak connection was the basis of the threat. But the issue is a political one, and many peaceful citizens of Ireland held similar views. I do not agree with them: Ireland has the same sort of unjust anti-terrorism laws as the UK, and oppressive laws on divorce and abortion as well. But if we tolerate censorship of political views just because we do not support them, we allow tyranny.
Courageous citizens may resist tyranny on principle, but we cannot expect businesses to do so. And it is hard to carry out any organized activity, including political opposition, without the services of business, such as phone lines, meeting halls, printing, and ISPs. One call from the Office of Homeland Security, and any business will cut off these services.
For non-citizens of the US, the bill will present an even more terrible danger: they could face life-long imprisonment without trial. The movie "A World Apart" showed how detention without trial operated in South Africa under the apartheid system. Its heroine was imprisoned without charges for 30 days, which the government had the power to do arbitrarily. At the end of that period, they had to release her--for just five minutes, which is how long it took the police to arrest her again. In the US, even that occasional five minute release won't be necessary. If the bill passes, I plan to warn my foreign friends to stay away from the US.
Little time remains, but if we value our freedom it is worth one more try to save it. The ACLU says that Congress has received tens of thousands of phone calls opposing this bill, and hardly any supporting it, but that legislators feel that they cannot say no to what the FBI wants. If they get a barrage of phone calls today, it may do something. The House is shut down, so call your representative's local office. A fax is good also, but there is no time left for a letter to arrive. Call your senators as well.
Please call, even if you do not usually call Congress. Ask them to start over, and this time think carefully about what they are doing!
[Later note: the anti-terrorism bill was signed in late October, without the most horrible provision (life imprisonment without trial for non-citizens), but otherwise in its full force.]
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Copyright (C) 2001 Richard Stallman
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