Welcome to the Land of the Free
US Government Takes One More Step
Toward Becoming a Police State
from No Compromise Issue 26

by Kelah Bott

The world changed for us on September 11, 2001 -- not because “America” was now aware of enemies wishing for its destruction and not because Americans now felt more vulnerable to outside threats for the first time since the height of the Cold War. Rather, it was because those in power in the United States now had an excuse to start rolling back civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

The first real evidence that this was indeed a brave new world was in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, which allowed for sweeping powers of the intelligence community and deprived citizens and non-citizens alike basic freedoms afforded by the Bill of Rights. In a post-9/11 United States, the FBI now has the legal power to access the most private records of anyone without a warrant or even probable cause. They don’t have to tell you about it, and can even punish your local library or family doctor if they inform you. Expansions of the government’s ability to wiretap and conduct private-property searches was also included in these provisions, with no safeguards put in place, leaving the intelligence community accountable to no one.

The newest evidence that we have stepped through the looking glass has come in the wake of Bush’s re-election in November. Though his cabinet appointments may raise red flags for those of us concerned with freedom of expression (or just freedom in general), it is a recent legislative reform that signals the real, lasting danger to activists, immigrants and any other group the federal government chooses to demonize. In December, President Bush signed into law the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004. This piece of legislation was hastily pushed through a lame duck session of Congress in order to satisfy some imaginary deadline for acting upon the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations.

The final bill was passed with little debate in Congress, and given that the Senate was given a mere 24 hours to read the 600-page bill, it is unlikely that most senators were even acquainted with the provisions contained therein. As Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) remarked on the Senate floor prior to the vote, “The Founding Fathers intended Congress to be a check on the power of the Chief Executive, but increasingly Congress appears content to be merely a cheerleader for the president, depending upon which party might be in control at a given moment.”

While many of the major news outlets touted this Act as a bipartisan answer to the 9/11 Commission recommendations (giving particular attention to the creation of a Director of National Intelligence), it is the provisions that expand upon the Patriot Act that deserve some real attention. Although the much-debated Patriot Act II was eventually shelved due to sharp criticism from human rights and civil liberties organizations, as well as citizens and some politicians, some similar provisions were included in the Intelligence Reform Act.

One of these disturbing curtailments of our civil liberties is a requirement for automatic pretrial detention for suspected terrorists. As many people are now aware, the label “terrorist” can be stretched and molded according to the government’s desires. Animal and environmental liberation activists and anarchists are increasingly categorized as such. This provision also, in effect, suspends habeas corpus - a jailed suspect’s right to due process before a court of law - as just the mere accusation of criminality can now mandate detention without the right to a hearing.

The Intelligence Reform Act also includes a creation of national standards for state driver’s licenses – in essence a national I.D. card. This gives power to the federal government to set these standards. Some concerns with this are the possibility of linking immigration status to licenses, implanting tracking chips in I.D. cards, and the effective creation of internal passports. As Timothy Edgar of the ACLU said on the December 14 broadcast of Democracy Now!, “Although the Congress wasn't willing to explicitly go that far, they have laid the groundwork for that kind of checkpoint society in the future.”

Perhaps to make all the egregious blows to privacy and liberty a little more palatable, the bill includes provisions for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Unfortunately, the board is appointed by the President and has no independent subpoena powers.Thus, it is no more than a public relations ploy.

As the U.S. attempts to spread its brand of freedom and democracy across the globe, it is little wonder why no one seems eager to welcome it. In this Orwellian universe, whereHealthy Forests Restoration Act is code for cutting down all the trees, and “freedom” increasingly means tyranny, it can be difficult to discover the true nature of U.S. policies behind all the rhetoric. While the corporate media makes it no easier, as they seem content to just repeat White House press releases as fact, it is important for us regular citizens to stay informed, vigilant and one step ahead of the game.