Our Constitutional Freedoms

Almost immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was calling for unlimited detention and deportation of terrorism suspects the power to conduct surveillance on any American presumed to have ties to terrorism. On Sept. 12, over 50 suspects were reportedly arrested in the small town of Davie, Fla. alone. By late November, the U.S. Department of Justice reported more than 1,100 detainees, none of whom have been charged with a crime, their identities kept secret.

Though earlier terrorism legislation gave U.S. authorities the right to do these things, Congress, at the request of President George W. Bush, moved quickly to pass a new anti-terrorism bill--the USA PATRIOT Act. The result was two separate pieces of legislation, one in the U.S. House of Representatives and the other in the Senate. The House bill (HR 3108) calls for “roving wiretaps” for three years with a 2-year extension at executive order; makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to share information; allows law enforcement agencies to subpoena information from Internet Service Providers (ISPs); allows for detention of suspects for seven days before charging them with a crime or beginning deportation proceedings; and makes it unlawful to harbor terrorism suspects or conceal information about their identities. The Senate bill (S. 1447) has the same provisions as the House bill, except it includes a money-laundering provision and no time limit or “sunset” on wiretaps or surveillance.

At one point, President Bush, in a memo to Congress, attempted to withhold all information about the new war from Congress, but legislators would not stand for it.

"To put out a public document telling the world he doesn't trust Congress and we leak everything, I'm not sure that helps develop unanimity and comradeship," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

On Nov. 13, 2001, President Bush created a war tribunal for dealing with terrorists. Similar to a military court, suspects will be tried in a closed courtroom in a foreign country and no one outside the court will be able to learn either what evidence was presented against suspects or the outcome of the trial.

In Florida, where a number of the Sept. 11 hijackers resided and even took flying lessons, access to public records is in jeopardy. Fearing the press would figure out what was happening before the authorities could, the Florida Legislature restricted access to drivers license and crop duster license information. Access to public hearings also has been restricted and secret committees, closed to the public, have been created for unnamed reasons.

"They think they can just hijack civil liberties in the name of law enforcement," Barbara Peterson, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

The Federal government also is restricting access to various public records, creating problems for anyone who wishes to know what is going on and creating heavy burdens on press coverage. For more information on press issues related to the new war, visit the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Web site.

This war is only beginning and there surely will be more restrictions on constitutional rights to come.