Shortly after the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001, Congress passed -- and President George W. Bush signed -- the USA Patriot Act, giving the Justice Department broader powers to fight terrorism. Since then, concern has risen that the law has led to abuses by law enforcement officials. And a new government study reportedly has found evidence of such abuses.
Washington, 22 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Within weeks of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Attorney General John Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He argued that existing laws were not current with the kind of terrorist threat the United States was then facing.
"Technology has dramatically outpaced our statutes. As the chairman mentioned, law enforcement tools created decades ago were crafted for rotary telephones, not e-mail or the Internet or mobile communications and voice mail. Every day that passes, every day that passes with outdated statutes and the old rules of engagement, is a day that terrorists have a competitive advantage. Until Congress makes those changes, we are fighting an unnecessarily uphill battle," Ashcroft said.
Soon after, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act with little debate. Critics warned, however, that the new law gave the Justice Department enhanced investigative powers that could strip U.S. citizens of some of their cherished freedoms and lead to widespread law enforcement abuses.
U.S. civil libertarians and advocates of immigrants' rights now say their early fears have been vindicated.
The inspector-general of the U.S. Justice Department is said to have given Congress a report accusing employees of the department of violating the civil rights and civil liberties of people arrested under the USA Patriot Act.
"The New York Times" reported yesterday (21 July) that officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Prisons had abused -- in some case even beaten -- some Arabs and Muslims who have been arrested since September 2001. All the reported abuses involve people arrested under the USA Patriot Act. The report is expected to be made public soon.
According to "The New York Times," the report by the inspector-general -- whose job is to monitor the behavior of Justice Department employees -- says it has what it calls 34 "credible" complaints of abuse in the first half of 2003.
One case involves a doctor who was giving a detainee a physical examination and reportedly told his patient, "If I was in charge, I would execute every one of you," because of their suspected links to terrorism.
The newspaper says a second complaint involves a prison guard who tried to insult and intimidate a Muslim prisoner by ordering him to remove his shirt so the guard could shine his own shoes with it.
This is the second report the Justice Department's inspector-general has issued in six weeks. The first involved irregularities in how the department has treated hundreds of illegal immigrants who were detained since the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Ibrahim Hooper is the national communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. He told RFE/RL that the trouble is not so much with the USA Patriot Act itself, but with the kind of behavior it encourages. "The problem is [the USA Patriot Act] creates an atmosphere in which officials believe this kind of activity is encouraged or permitted, in which bigotry and prejudice and abuses can thrive," Hooper said.
Paul Rosenzweig studies law enforcement issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy-research center in Washington. He acknowledges there are flaws in the USA Patriot Act, and that there may be rogues within the Justice Department who have abused the rights of prisoners.
But Rosenzweig said America's legal system was conceived with built-in checks on the authority of the state. He notes these checks include the right of individuals and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to sue the government over its actions, and the duty of Congress to oversee the operations of cabinet agencies -- in this case, the Justice Department.
"It's not only the possibility of judicial action by the ACLU or by the individuals harmed. It's also the process of congressional oversight, which is reflected here in the provision of the report to Congress and Congress's ability to demand answers. That's exactly how we built the system to work when the constitution was written. This is a sign of a healthy and sustainable democracy that polices itself against abuse," Rosenzweig said.
Hooper responded that while the courts, for example, may be empowered to serve as a check against government excesses, they do not always exercise that power.
For example, last month a three-judge federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the government may withhold the identities of about 1,200 people arrested in connection with the September 2001 attacks. The government agreed with the Justice Department's argument that to reveal the detainees' identities could give terrorists valuable information about how it was conducting its investigation into the attacks.
Hooper said such rulings show the judicial system in America is too often deferring to the judgment of the administration of President George W. Bush. "The judiciary is one check on government abuse, but we're seeing time and time again that the judges are giving deference to the government on anything related to security," he said. "No judge wants to be the person who lets go somebody who later commits an act of terrorism."
Rosenzweig said that during a time of war or, as in this case, a prevalent threat of terrorism, it is important to remember the government's duty to protect its citizens while maintaining civil rights and civil liberties.
While he said the USA Patriot Act may be flawed, he believes it is not the product of a government that is overreacting to the September 2001 attacks. He said this is due in part to the private and judicial checks on its power, and to the government's duty to fight its enemies. "I don't think it's a tendency to overdo it. I think [government officials] have an appropriate tendency to react to terrorist threats. We always need to be watchful to make sure that [the government] doesn't go too far, and when it does, pull it back. For sure, we also want a government that is aggressive in ensuring civil security," Rosenzweig said.
Rosenzweig cited John Locke, the 17th-century English philosopher who greatly influenced the founders of American democracy. Locke wrote that the rule of law is not meant "to abolish or restrain" but to ensure liberty. And he defined liberty as freedom "from the restraint and violence of others."
So as the government works to protect its citizens from their enemies, Rosenzweig said, Congress and the courts -- and the citizens themselves -- keep the government from becoming an enemy itself.