Post-September 11 Laws Put
Liberties at Risk, Warns ACLU Head
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu
These are perilous times for civil liberties in the United States, according to Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Seven months after the attacks of September 11, changes in our nation's laws, rules, and regulations are blurring the distinction between waging war and ensuring justice," said Romero, whose talk on April 24 was sponsored by the Institute for Puerto Rican and Latino Studies and the Puerto Rican/ Latin American Cultural Center.
Romero, the first Latino and first openly gay head of a national civil liberties organization, had been on the job - at the ACLU headquarters in Manhattan - just one week when the September 11 attacks occurred, fundamentally changing the climate for civil liberties in the country.
He said the government must strike a balance between security and freedom: "We should be looking at all measures that enhance safety without limiting our freedoms." Many such measures - such as increasing aviation security by matching checked-in passengers with their luggage - have not yet been taken, he said.
Romero urged public vigilance against any short-term steps that would needlessly erode civil liberties.
"Before we forfeit any freedom, we need a good healthy debate on these issues," Romero said. Unfortunately, he said, such discussion has been missing.
In order to respond effectively to September 11 and prevent a recurrence of terrorism, it is necessary first to understand what went wrong that allowed the attacks to happen. "We don't know if agencies [such as the CIA] were not using the powers they had or didn't have the powers they needed," he said.
"The litmus test [for any change in the law] should be, Is it necessary? Will it work? Is it defensible? And will we lose more than we gain?" added Romero.
"The terrorists were targeting not only people and buildings but values: freedom, liberty, and equality, the pillars of American society. If our response reaches the point of restricting our freedoms, then the terrorists will have won," he said. "I fear that when the war on terrorism is finally won, we won't be able to recognize our democracy."
Romero said this is not the first time in history that the ACLU has taken a stand against the curtailment of liberties during periods of national upheaval.
He noted that the ACLU was founded in 1918, during a time of unrest following World War I, when public opinion turned against a series of raids on suspected radicals that involved arrests without warrant, seizure of property, police brutality, and prolonged detention of immigrants without access to counsel.
He said the organization was "tested by fire" in 1942, when xenophobia against Japanese Americans was rampant. The ACLU was one of two organizations nationally that opposed the Japanese internments.
Romero said recent actions have eroded the independence of the judiciary, that was designed to guarantee individual freedoms.
In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, he said, Congress introduced new public surveillance tools. The anti-terrorism law, put into effect in 1996, was joined by two other new laws concerning immigrants and prisoners that "set in motion a dangerous trend. The framers' view of the judiciary as independent was being replaced by a contrary view, according to which the judiciary is seen as an inconvenient obstacle to executive action."
Last fall, after only one and a half months of deliberation, Congress passed the "USA Patriots Act," 342 pages of complex legislation. Many of the act's provisions, Romero said, further transform judicial review into a "rubber stamp for executive action."
These include the detention of non-citizens without charge for up to seven days, if the Attorney General has "reasonable grounds" to believe the detainees pose a danger to national security. "This gives unprecedented authority to the Attorney General," he said, and is a permanent change to the nation's law.
Romero noted that "we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, yet immigrant groups are frequently scapegoats in American politics." Since September 11, he said, 1,200 individuals have been arrested and detained, and an unknown number are still held. Many of them are not American citizens, and are seen as having fewer rights.
Yet many constitutional rights apply to citizens and non-citizens alike, he said, and due process is a concern to all: "When the rights of non citizens are sacrificed, the rights of none are safe."
In addition, large sections of the Patriots Act are not only about immigrants, he noted. The roving wiretaps introduced under President Clinton, for example, which gave the government the ability to track the phone numbers of calls an individual makes or receives, have now been extended to websites visited on the Internet.
"This affects the people here in this room," Romero said, addressing the audience in Konover Auditorium, "not immigrants in a detention center."
"It is not just an issue of having nothing to hide," he said. Information that is not bad in itself is still vulnerable to misuse.
Romero said the ACLU's critics counter that restrictions imposed during wartime are almost always temporary, and that liberties will be restored once the hostilities have ended. "But the war against terrorism is unlike any war we've ever fought and won, and is unlikely to come to a public decisive end," he said. "Restrictions on civil liberties may be with us for a very long time."