The U.S.A. Patriot Act, rammed through a terrified Congress with virtually no debate in a few weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, legalized unprecedented government spying on the American public, as well as the indefinite jailing of terrorism “suspects.”
The ostensible purpose of that sweeping law, with its authority for loosely controlled wiretaps, computer eavesdropping, and secret searches, was to protect the public from terrorism. But, so far, it's hard to tell if it's been a success or failure. The Justice Department refuses to answer questions, even from Congress, on the grounds that government exercise of these broad new powers is - what else? - secret.
Now comes Big Brother, Part II. A Justice Department draft of legislation cleverly titled the “Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003” has been submitted to Vice President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert. A copy was leaked last week by some courageous soul to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group in Washington.
The proposed statutes would dramatically extend government power, even to the point of secret arrests of terror suspects and the threat of loss of U.S. citizenship for some, create a DNA database of suspects, and further reduce judicial oversight of anti-terror actions.
Another provision would require suspects to prove why they should be released on bail instead of requiring the prosecution to prove why they should be held.
In short, the proposals would upturn treasured concepts in American law - habeas corpus, presumption of innocence, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure, to name three - in the name of national security.
Some Americans undoubtedly would welcome such measures, which will be promoted as necessary to keep the country “safe.” In reality, they amount to a wholesale diminution of constitutional freedoms that, once lost, may never be regained.
The personal protection we thought we enjoyed from the tyranny of government must not be relegated to the universe of abstract ideas. When individuals can be imprisoned for months, incommunicado and without charges being brought, a just legal system becomes a cruel mockery.
Congress already has rejected Attorney General John Ashcroft's TIPS program, which encouraged citizens to spy on one another, and legislation is in the works to corral the Orwellian “Total Information Awareness” project under way in the Pentagon. Lawmakers have the obligation to treat the “Domestic Security Enhancement Act” with the same well-deserved skepticism.