As civil libertarians, attorneys and political activists step up their attacks on the Bush administration’s proposed expansion of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, Grenada’s United States ambassador says that he, too, is very distressed by the measure.
In an exclusive interview from Washington, D.C., Dr. Dennis Antoine said that while he is in agreement with the enactment of certain laws governing terrorism and money laundering, he is apprehensive of the overall long reach of the proposal.
“It speaks of the deprivation of civil liberties,” he said. “It challenges banking relations with countries. It expands the scope of electronic communication. It compels the attention not only of citizens of America, but (of) allies and individuals doing business with America.”
Ambassador Antoine said that the extra territorial reach of Patriot II, as the proposal is called, is “most disturbing and challenging.”
“There’s no privacy in banking anywhere,” he said. “It takes away the privacy of people. It scares away anyone who would have gone offshore to do business.”
In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft was successful in getting Congress to rush through the Patriot Act, arguing that anyone who opposed the powers would be, essentially, aiding terrorism.
The act, signed into law on October 26, 2001, gave sweeping powers to both domestic law enforcement and international intelligence agencies. It eliminates the checks and balances that previously gave courts the opportunity to ensure that these new powers were not abused.
With changes in over 15 different statutes, the act, among other things, expands surveillance with reduced checks and balances, allows Americans to be more easily spied upon by U.S. foreign intelligence agencies, calls for the detention of suspects indefinitely in secrecy and permits their deportation.
The proposed Patriot II would erode civil liberties further. It would significantly decrease judicial review and congressional oversight while limiting public access to information.
The act requires the director of the U.S. Secret Service to develop a national network of electronic crime task forces to prevent and investigate various forms of electronic crimes, including potential terrorist attacks.
It permits the seizure of voice-mail messages under a warrant and expands the scope of subpoenas for records of electronic communications to include the length and types of service utilized, temporarily assigned network addresses, and the means and source of payment, including any credit card or bank account number.
The act also gives the executive branch new powers to sample and catalog citizens’ genetic information without court order or consent.
Jennifer Van Bergen, a faculty member at the New School for Social Research, who is among several lawyers advocating the repeal of the act, said that it (act) is “an insult to Americans.”
“The name itself is insulting,” she said, “given what the act contains and what it will someday be known for: its complete abdication of democratic law and principles. It should be called the Constitution Shredding Act.”
Van Bergen, a member of the Board of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the act “utterly relinquishes” any semblance of due process and violates the constitution.
“Let me state it even more bluntly: this law is dangerous,” she said. “It’s a travesty. What is worse is that few Americans have the slightest idea what this law contains or what it means.”
She said that what is more troubling is that the new powers do little to increase the ability of law enforcement or intelligence to bring terrorists to justice.
Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, said that the act launches “a three-pronged assault” on citizens’ and immigrants’ privacy.
Firstly, she said, it grants the executive branch “unprecedented, and largely unchecked,” surveillance powers, including the enhanced ability to track e-mail and Internet usage and conduct nationwide roving wiretaps.
Secondly, she said, it permits law enforcement agencies to circumvent the fourth amendment’s requirement of probable cause when conducting wiretaps and searches that have, as a “significant purpose,” the gathering of foreign intelligence.
And thirdly, it allows for the sharing of information between criminal and intelligence operations, thereby opening the door to domestic spying.
“The proponents of this Act used the American shock and fear to slip this law past our awareness,” she said.
Antoine said that regional governments should seriously scrutinize the act, particularly in relevance to international relations and trade.
“It has consequences for the Free Trade Areas of the Americas,” he said. “It kills trust in foreign jurisdictions. It makes it difficult to do business without being accused. It leaves little room for honest businessmen to do business. It’s eye opening.”
Deep concerns have also been raised over the powers granted to local police to arrest people accused of civil violations of immigration law, such as overstaying their visas. Traditionally, federal agents did that job.
But Justice Department officials said the change was necessary to assist immigration officers and to remove criminals and potential terrorists from the streets.
The Justice Department has, at the same time, refused to release the documents on which it based its decision.
“We’re concentrating on arresting aliens who have violated criminal provisions of the Immigration and Naturalization Act or civil provisions that render an alien deportable,” said Jorge Martinez, a spokesman for the Justice Department. “That’s the narrow scope.”
A coalition of immigration advocacy groups, however, is challenging the department’s decision, claiming that it violates the law and undermines confidence in local law enforcement.