Analysis: Opposition to Patriot Act grows

By AL SWANSON, UPI Urban Affairs Correspondent  |  Oct. 16, 2003 at 12:37 PM
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CHICAGO, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Had the USA Patriot Act been the law of the land 40 years ago the civil rights movement that overturned legal racial segregation in the United States might never have happened.

That's the opinion of Clarence B. Jones, a lawyer and one-time speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s campaign of marches and demonstrations that changed life for millions of African-Americans in the South.

"It would have had a chilling effect on individuals involved in the civil rights struggle or any movement for social change," Jones said at a seminar on the Patriot Act at the Illinois NAACP convention last week.

"We did a search under the Freedom of Information Act and they found 24 boxes of documents on me," Jones told United Press International. "All that would have been legal (under the Patriot Act) and with much better electronic surveillance today."

Spying on dissidents and opposition political groups is nothing new. COINTELPRO, a domestic counter-intelligence program authorized by late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1956 targeted King and other leaders, and surveillance of civil rights activists conducted by the Chicago Police Department's notorious "Red Squad" was illegal.

COINTELPRO was a secret FBI program to undermine civil rights and anti-war groups and eliminate radical political opposition inside the United States. In large part it was successful.

Hoover, who also kept secret files on politicians, religious leaders, actors and others, authorized agents to use fraud, harassment, vandalism, frame-ups and force to sabotage constitutionally protected political activity and to "misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralize specific individuals and groups."

The program didn't become public until 1971 when secret FBI files were leaked to the news media. After the Watergate scandal, Congress compelled the agency to reveal the extent of its domestic spying. More than 2,000 individual actions were discovered.

FBI agents infiltrated groups ranging from the Black Panther Party and NAACP to the liberal campus Students for a Democratic Society, conducting illegal domestic clandestine actions.

Individuals targeted included "Negro radicals" (King, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad), "white liberals" (anti-Vietnam War activists David Dellinger and pacifist Philip Berrigan) and American-Indian Movement, Chicano, Philippine and Arab-American leaders.

Paid informants infiltrated religious services and church Bible study circles in the South. Offices of political groups from Berkeley, Calif., to Washington, D.C. were burglarized and important documents copied, stolen or vandalized.

Puerto Rican independence activists were rounded up and detained as terrorists.

"These kind of government tactics violate our fundamental constitutional rights. They make it enormously difficult to sustain grass-roots organizing. They create an atmosphere of fear and distrust which undermines any effort to challenge official policy," wrote attorney Brian Glick, author of "War at Home."

The Chicago Police Department operated a secret police unit commonly called the "Red Squad" from 1929 until 1981, when the city agreed to a consent decree outlawing illegal surveillance activities. A court order was approved in 1982.

"The NAACP is to be commended for bringing this issue to the American public," said Jones. "A lot of people don't know what is at stake."

"King would have been in jail if the Patriot Act had been in effect in 1965," said longtime NAACP stalwart Bennett Johnson.

Grass-roots opposition to the Patriot Act and the farther-reaching proposals for Patriot Act II is growing in the nation's heartland.

In May, suburban Evanston, Ill., became the first Illinois community to adopt an anti-Patriot Act resolution. The city of Chicago passed its own resolution opposing the Patriot Act on Oct. 1, joining more than 180 other cities and towns across the nation.

"Time and time again, we as a country, as a free and liberal society, have recognized that the only way to ensure that people with power do not exploit that power to restrict our freedoms and liberties is to limit their ability to use that power," said Alderman Helen Shiller.

State legislatures in Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii have passed similar resolutions.

"A true patriot does not trash the First Amendment," said political commentator Don Rose. "A true patriot does not cripple the Fourth Amendment. A true patriot does not demolish the Sixth Amendment. And a true patriot does not make a mockery of Emma Lazarus's words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, 'Give me your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free ... '"

The American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Detroit and Portland, Ore., in July asking federal judges to declare key sections of the USA Patriot Act unconstitutional.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to repeal a section of the act over the objections of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Under the act, librarians would be required to disclose to the FBI a list of books a person checked out and it would be a felony for a librarian to notify a person they were under government scrutiny.

The Cofrin Library at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay routinely deletes circulation records of requests for books or other materials from its computer system after the transactions are completed.

"We do believe in people's privacy in their use of the library," library Director Leanne Hansen told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Privacy warnings detailing provisions of the Patriot Act are posted at the Beloit (Wis.) Public Library.

The USA Patriot Act was signed by President George W. Bush Oct. 26, 2001, weeks after the terrorist attacks that killed more than 2,000 people at New York's World Trade Center towers and at the Pentagon.

Supporters say the broad investigatory powers given to federal law enforcement are needed to protect the country from potential terrorism in the post-9/11 world. Both liberals and conservatives have acknowledged the legislation was hastily enacted and without hearings after the traumatic Sept. 11 attacks. Some lawmakers never read the entire bill.

Civil liberties groups are particularly concerned about warrantless so-called "sneek-and-peek" searches that can be authorized retroactively by a secret seven-judge Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court in Washington and roving "John Doe" wiretaps.

Federal agents would have expanded powers to detain non-citizens and people could be stripped of their U.S. citizenship.

"Ashcroft is seeking to legalize all of those things J. Edgar Hoover did illegally during the civil rights movement," said Colleen K. Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., the only member of the U.S. Senate to vote against the Patriot Act, offered an amendment on roving wiretaps and record subpoena authority during debate in Congress two years ago. He is co-sponsor of the Library, Bookseller, and Person Records Privacy Act (S. 1507), which would place safeguards on FBI access to records.

Last week, Feingold, with co-sponsors including Republican Sens. John Sununu, R-N.H. and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the Security and Freedom (SAFE) Act to rein in secret searches, wiretaps and FBI access to personal information about law abiding Americans.

"This bipartisan bill should be a wake-up call to the administration," Feingold said. "It's time to address legitimate and honest concerns about the Patriot Act."

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois Friday said the SAFE Act imposes reasonable limits on law enforcement's authority without impending their ability to investigate and prevent terrorism.

"I believe it is possible to combat terrorism and protect our liberties simultaneously," Durbin said. "The Patriot Act crossed the line on several key areas of civil liberties. We're not proposing a full repeal. Instead we want to amend provisions of the original Patriot Act to reflect the American citizen's right to be both safe and free."

The bill has the backing of liberal and conservative groups including the ACLU, American Conservative Union, the American Library Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Center for Democracy and Technology, the Free Congress Foundation and People for the American Way.

"We need to restrict to government from going too far," Durbin said. "If they'd been more cooperative and shared more information with us in general terms about how they were using this law we may not be here today. But until they do, our first responsibility is to protect the freedom of this country."

The ACLU is wary of legislative efforts to fix Section 215 -- which permits warrant-free searches of private records without probable cause or suspicion -- a provision of the law it considers unconstitutional.

"We know from our clients that the FBI is once again targeting ethnic, religious, and political minority communities disproportionately," said Ann Beeson, lead attorney on the ACLU's suit in Michigan.

Connell said expanded powers of the Patriot Act II would broaden the definition of terrorism to include organizations like the environmental activist group Greenpeace and the anti-abortion Operation Rescue because they intend to affect government policy.

The ACLU supports legislation to amend and place a time limit on provisions of the Patriot Act.

"We'd rather they got rid of the whole Patriot Act," said Connell.

Muslim-Americans have expressed fears their phones are being tapped, bank records reviewed and their contributions to Islamic charities are being monitored by federal agents.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Fagan told a panel discussion in St. Louis the Patriot Act was widely misunderstood. He said the measure had made federally uniform standards for use of good tools to fight terrorist and terrorism.

"The media has ginned people up to believe there's something wrong with the Patriot Act," he said. "And there's not."

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