The Top 10 Abuses of Power Since 9-11

Since 9-11, the federal government has been attacking our civil liberties. On June 26, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other national organizations sponsored a "Day of Action to Restore the Rule of Law." Thirty-five Central New Yorkers joined 2000 people in Washington, DC to rally and lobby. What follows are the Top 10 Abuses, in no particular order.

1. Warrantless Wiretapping. In December 2005, The New York Times reported the National Security Agency (NSA) was tapping into overseas telephone calls of US citizens without a warrant, in violation of federal statutes and the Constitution. Furthermore, the agency had gained direct access to the telecommunications infrastructure through some of the US' largest companies. The actions were confirmed by Bush and other officials, who boldly insisted, in the face of all precedent and common understanding of the law, that the program was legal. The agency appears to be not only eavesdropping but also using broad "data mining" systems that allow it to analyze information about the communications of millions of people within the US. This is one of many examples of the administration's efforts to evade or minimize judicial review of its surveillance and detention activities. In August 2006, a federal judge found the program both unconstitutional and illegal.

2. Torture, Kidnapping and Detention. In the years since 9-11, our government has illegally kidnapped, detained and tortured numerous prisoners. The government continues to claim that it can designate anyone, including Americans, as "enemy combatants" without charge. Since 2002, "enemy combatants" have been held at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, in some cases without access by the Red Cross. Investigations into other military detention centers have revealed severe human rights abuses and violations of international law, including the Geneva Conventions. The government has also engaged in the practice of rendition - secretly kidnapping people and moving them to foreign countries where they may be tortured. It has been reported that the CIA maintains secret prison camps in Eastern Europe to conduct operations that may violate international standards. See www.aclu.org/torture.

3. The Growing Surveillance Society. In perhaps the greatest assault on the privacy of ordinary Americans, the country is undergoing a rapid expansion of data collection, storage, tracking, and mining. Over and above the invasion of privacy represented by any one specific program, a combination of new technologies, expanded government powers and expanded private-sector data collection efforts is creating a new "surveillance society" that is unlike anything Americans have seen before. A recent Post Standard article reports that the FBI is searching records about real estate transactions, motor vehicle accidents, identity thefts and complaints about Internet drug companies to "help search for potential terrorists, insurance cheats and crooked pharmacists."

4. Patriot Act Reauthorization. Several provisions of the Patriot Act were set to expire at the end of 2005. Despite opposition from across the political spectrum and more than 400 community and state resolutions, Congress reauthorized the law in March, 2006 without reforms to bring its most flawed provisions back in line with the Constitution. It passed up an opportunity to ensure adequate judicial oversight of the surveillance powers authorized in the Act. However, lawmakers did impose four-year "sunsets" (or expiration dates) on three of the more controversial provisions, ensuring that Congress will have to revisit the issue. See www.reformthepatriotact.org.

5. Misuse and Abuse of National Security Letter Provisions. One year after the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice reported that the FBI had repeatedly abused its authority to issue National Security Letters (NSLs) under Section 505 of the Patriot Act. The FBI significantly understated the number of NSLs it issued, even in reports to Congress. NSLs were issued to get immediate phone call information based on "exigent circumstances" when none existed. Agents had illegally issued letters requesting information about individuals without evidence or suspicion of a connection to a criminal suspect or target of an intelligence investigation.

6. Government Secrecy. The Bush administration has been one of the most secretive and nontransparent in our history. The Freedom of Information Act has been weakened, the administration has led a campaign of reclassification and increased secrecy by federal agencies (including the expansion of a catch-all category of "sensitive but unclassified" and efforts by Cheney to thwart examination of his office's classification procedures), and has made sweeping claims of "state secrets" to stymie judicial review of many policies that infringe on civil liberties. It even refused to grant government investigators the security clearances they needed to investigate the NSA wiretapping program. It has also expressed interest in prosecuting journalists under the Espionage Act of 1917, essentially trying to quell the media's role in exposing questionable, illegal and unconstitutional conduct.

7. No Fly and Selectee Lists. The No-Fly list was established after 9-11 to keep track of people the government prohibits from traveling because they have been labeled as security risks. People on the selectee list are subjected to additional security screening and questions. Since 9-11, the number of similar watch lists has mushroomed, all with mysterious or ill-defined criteria for how names are placed on the lists, and with little recourse for innocent travelers seeking to be taken off them. These lists name an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people. The lists are so erroneous that children and several members of Congress have been flagged. See www.aclu.org/nofly.

8. Political Spying. Government agencies - including the FBI and the Department of Defense - have conducted their own spying on innocent and law-abiding Americans. Through the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU learned the FBI has been consistently monitoring peaceful groups such as the Quakers, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Greenpeace, the Arab American Anti-Defamation Committee and, indeed, the ACLU itself. Recently the NYCLU learned that the NY Police Department had spied on hundreds of peace and social justice groups, including the Syracuse Peace Council, before the 2004 Republican National Convention. See www.aclu.org/spyfiles.

9. Abuse of Material Witness Statute. In the days and weeks after 9-11, the government gathered and detained many people - mostly Muslims in the US - through the abuse of a narrow federal technicality that permits the arrest and brief detention of "material witnesses," or those who have important information about a crime. Most of those detained as material witnesses were never treated as witnesses to the crimes of 9-11, and although they were detained so that their testimony could be secured, in many cases, no effort was made to secure their testimony. The government has apologized for wrongfully detaining thirteen people as material witnesses. Some were imprisoned for more than six months and one actually spent more than a year behind bars. A Department of Justice report documented mistreatment and abuse of some of these detainees.

10. Attacks on Academic Freedom. The Bush administration has used a provision in the Patriot Act to engage in "censorship at the border" to keep scholars with perceived political views the administration does not like out of the US. The ACLU filed a lawsuit charging that this ideological exclusion is being used to prevent people in the US from hearing speech protected by the First Amendment. Also, government policies and practices have hampered academic freedom and scientific inquiry. The government has moved to over-classify information and has engaged in outright censorship and prescreening of scientific articles before publication. See www.aclu.org/exclusion.

To get involved locally in the fight to restore our civil liberties, contact Barrie Gewanter at the CNY Chapter of the ACLU (471-2821) or Carol Baum at SPC (472-4578).


This article was adapted by Barrie Gewanter from an ACLU fact sheet.