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Losing the War Against Terror
Rep. John Conyers, Jr., Ranking Member, House Judiciary Committee
Nearly four years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, many of us warned that we should not let our anger over an attack against our nation be used as an excuse to undermine our fundamental liberties. Unfortunately, today, as the USA PATRIOT Act comes up for renewal, it seems increasingly clear that we have failed in the task of balancing our nation's need for security and our citizen's freedoms.
While the PATRIOT Act may not deserve all or even most of the ridicule that is heaped against it, there is little doubt that the legislation has been repeatedly and seriously misused by the Justice Department. Consider the following
* Its been used more than 150 times to secretly search an individual's home, with nearly 90% of those cases having had nothing to do with terrorism.
* It was used against Brandon Mayfield, an innocent Muslim American, to tap his phones, seize his property, copy his computer, spy on his children, and take his DNA, all without his knowledge.
* Its been used to deny, on account of his political beliefs, the admission to the United States of a Swiss citizen and prominent Muslim Scholar to teach at Notre Dame University.
* Its been used to unconstitutionally coerce an Internet Service Provider to divulge information about email activity and web surfing on its system, and than to gag that Provider from even disclosing the abuse to the public.
* Because of gag restrictions, we will never know how many times its been used to obtain reading records from library and book stores, but we do know that libraries have been solicited by the Department of Justice - voluntarily or under threat of the PATRIOT Act - for reader information on more than 200 occasions since September 11.
* Its been used to charge, detain and prosecute a Muslim student in Idaho for posting Internet website links to objectionable materials, even though the same links were available on the U.S. government's web site.
Even worse than the PATRIOT Act has been the unilateral abuse of power by the Administration. Since September 11, our government has detained and verbally and physically abused thousands of immigrants without time limit, for unknown and unspecified reasons, and targeted tens of thousands of Arab-Americans for intensive interrogations and immigration screenings. All this serves to accomplish is to alienate Muslim and Arab Americans - the key groups to fighting terrorism in our own county - who see a Justice Department that has institutionalized racial and ethnic profiling, without the benefit of a single terrorism conviction.
Nor is it helpful when our government condones the torture of prisoners at home and abroad, authorizes the monitoring of mosques and religious sites without any indication of criminal activity, and detains scores of individuals as material witnesses because it does not have evidence to indict them. This makes our citizens less safe not more safe, and undermines our role as a beacon of democracy and freedom.
If we are serious about combating terror in the 21st century, we must move beyond empty gestures and color coded threat levels, and begin to make the hard choices that protect our nation. To prevent terrorists from targeting our citizens and our cities, we need to stand up to the gun lobby and keep assault weapons out of the hands of suspected terrorists. To prevent bombings like those which devastated London last week, we need to challenge the chemical and explosives industry to help us regulate sales of black and smokeless powder. To protect our ports and other soft targets, we need to stop passing new tax cuts for the wealthy and start fully and fairly funding all of our homeland security needs.
The lessons of September 11 are that if we allow law enforcement to do their work free of political interference, if we give them adequate resources and modern technologies, we can protect our citizens without intruding on our liberties. We all want to fight terrorism, but we need to fight it the right way, consistent with our constitution, and in a manner that serves as a model for the rest of the world. The PATRIOT Act - through its various sins of commission and omission - does not meet that test, and it does not warrant reauthorization without major revisions.