Waiting for the Bullet

LATE LAST WEEK, the D.C. advocacy group Center for Public Integrity (CPI) published a leaked copy of a closely held Justice Department secret: the draft language of proposed legislation that would update and sharply expand 2001's USA Patriot Act. It is one of the most horrifying documents ever to come out of a city numbed to horrifying documents. Read it, and get angry—while it's still not a crime. (The full, 120-page text of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 is online at www.publicintegrity.org.)

According to both the Center for Public Integrity and a report on Now with Bill Moyers, only Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert are known to have received advance copies of the proposed legislation. Senate Judiciary Committee staff had been told by the Justice Department, as recently as last week, that no such bill was in the works.

It's easy to understand why. Exposed to sunlight, this thing starts stinking in a hurry. Like the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act, it is packed, in virtually every paragraph, with repugnant and terrifying details.

Among the lowlights:

Individuals, whether or not they are citizens, may be declared official enemies with whom the United States is at war. Among other things, this extension of the war on terrorism's absurdist leap—declaring war against terrorist groups rather than nation states or their militaries—enables the U.S., using the logic already established by calling Jose Padilla and Yasser Esam Hamdi "enemy combatants," to imprison any citizen indefinitely, without criminal charges, judicial review, or access to an attorney or any other outside party.

A whole section allows the government to strip Americans of their citizenship, on the basis of engaging in activity, even if it is lawful, if it supports a group the U.S. deems terrorist. The new ex- citizens may also then be subjected to the same kangaroo court proceedings already inflicted on noncitizens.

The definition of espionage or "enemy" activity will include otherwise lawful activity, as well as activity that knowingly or not assists a foreign "power." That power may now be a "terrorist cell" or even an individual. From section 102: "Requiring the . . . showing that the intelligence gathering violates the laws of the United States is both unnecessary and counterproductive." Especially since Web searches at your local library aren't otherwise illegal. Yet.

Information on who the government "detains" will be banned. Ditto what is then done to them. Freedom of Information Act requests will be denied, leaks will be crimes, and publication of that information will also be criminal. This is the legalization of secret arrests, no different in form or impact than Stalin's goons taking people away in the dead of night.

State-level bans on law-enforcement surveillance activity are superseded. With one stroke, this takes out dozens of laws across the country similar to Seattle's intelligence law barring local police investigation of lawful political activity. Courts would also have limited ability to issue injunctions against such activities.

Several new crimes are eligible for the federal death penalty.

The Justice Department's proposed new law also vastly expands other penalties, including a dramatic escalation of criminal penalties for routine immigration violations—even when the INS is at fault.

There's much more. This draft makes it clear that previous Bush/Ashcroft civil liberty assaults have been part of a careful strategy. Once court challenges and public indignation fade, each outrage provides precedent for further, more extreme measures.

At no point is this suspension of over 200 years of American jurisprudence distinguishable from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Saddam, or any other despot one might name. The only difference is frequency of usage—that's the next step. Given the bellicosity of Bush foreign policy, likely to soon be on full display in Iraq and Palestine, future major terrorist crimes on American soil are a virtual certainty.

When that happens, these laws will already be on the books and found constitutional, more often than not, by 20 years of conservative court appointees.

In some dictatorships, people are simply taken out back and shot. Under the Police State Enhancement Act of 2003, people can be taken and shot but may have to wait a while before their bullet arrives, what with all the paperwork involved. That's the next bill: "The Terrorist Execution Paperwork Reduction Act of 2004."

All in all, the individuals working hardest to earn the distinction of being at war with the United States—and all it has stood for—work in the Bush administration itself. Members of Congress who might well support such legislation deserve to be deluged with public outcry. Tell them it's an affront to liberty and democracy. Tell them it's positively un-American.

And then hope your monitored call does not lead, someday, to your being taken away and shot.


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