ACLU Pres. protests 'shroud of secrecy'

by Laura McGann | 10/29/03 6:00am

The American government unnecessarily infringes on the civil liberties of U.S. citizens in the name of national security, according to Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a lecture at Silsby Hall last night, Strossen said she is concerned that national law enforcement authorities have embraced furtiveness as a response to the challenges presented since Sept. 11.

"The government is acting in secret, throwing a shroud of secrecy over every aspect of the post-Sept. 11 investigation," Strossen said. She added it is not only the ACLU concerned with this secrecy, but both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate are as well.

Beyond secrecy, Strossen discussed the problem of deciding how much the government can encroach on civil liberties for security purposes.

"You have to balance what you're losing in terms of individual privacy,

in terms of what are you're gaining in terms of enhanced security," Strossen said. "This is the test the Supreme Court uses."

Strossen presented one example disclosed by the Justice Department in a report published this summer. The report documented the detaining of about 1,200 Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia as being carried out in an "indiscriminate and haphazard manner." Many were held for weeks or months without access to lawyers or family members, and none of the detainees were ever charged with a terrorism-related crime.

Strossen called this situation "the worst of both worlds" due to the infringement on basic liberties and the lack of a corresponding gain in national security. She also said she was appalled by discrimination based almost entirely on religion and national origin. "It makes me shudder," she said.

Strossen addressed the Patriot Act, too, noting that the act provides the government with "new, broad sweeping powers," in the words of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Strossen said such powers are unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

"You could be put on an FBI watch list for borrowing a book about the Taliban from the library" she said. "The FBI could investigate you for criticisms of President Bush that you voiced during a college class."

There are movements in Congress to repeal parts of the Patriot Act that have been met with a backlash of public outrage. Strossen said that about 200 state and local governments have passed resolutions against the act. The governments cumulatively represent almost 26 million people.

Rep. John Sununu, a Republican from New Hampshire, is reportedly working on a bill to target some of the aspects of the act which critics call overreaching, including one section that allows government agencies to compile bank, school and library records.

Congress has also refused to extend powers since the Patriot Act. Early this year, the House of Representatives struck down the president's Total Information Awareness Program, which Strossen said would have given the government almost complete access to the private information of citizens.

Strossen said she believes that reinstating civil liberties will not leave the United States without alternative protective measures.

She cited a case last year when the FBI had an opportunity to legally obtain crucial evidence in a terrorism case under a law that had been in place since the '70s, but FBI agents had allegedly not been aware of the law.