This latest defense authorization bill, which Obama has now said he will not veto, will allow indefinite detention for U.S. citizens without charge or trial. Indefinite detention is not fair or a good idea even for non-US citizens, but making it legal for U.S. citizens is pretty much throwing the Bill of Rights away. Specifically, the 5th Amendment, the part that says: “nor [shall any person] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”
Due process means you cannot be imprisoned without being first charged with something, then being tried for it, all according to standard legal procedure which gives you opportunity to make your case and ensures that the only people who are punished are those who are actually guilty of the crimes they’re accused of. This legal framework exists to make sure that the government cannot just drag people away in the night because they feel like it, based on the overarching premise that every form of power must come with some means of oversight, some way to correct or counterbalance it.
The argument we’re being sold now is “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and that allowing due process for terrorists would be spoiling them. The whole conversation on this topic ignores one really crucial fact: it is possible to falsely accuse someone of being a terrorist. Not only is it possible to falsely accuse someone of being a terrorist, but it’s really fucking easy, and it happens all the time. False accusations of terrorism, treason and all manner of criminal activity are the bread and butter of dictatorships.
For example, when Egypt’s (now ousted) parliament voted to renew the country’s emergency laws, which give government the right to arrest anyone, anywhere, at any time, for any reason or no reason, they claimed that the law would only be used for terrorists and drug dealers. And see it’s true, because what they mean by that is that pro-democracy activists, leftists, feminists, communists, etc. are terrorists. You just call all of your political opponents terrorists, and viola! You can throw them all in jail! Emergency law and the culture of impunity for abuses of power it creates is what made possible things like the murder of Khaled Said, the Alexandrian blogger who was beaten to death in public because the police didn’t like what he wrote on his blog.
And let’s be clear, when those emergency laws were put on the books, Egypt really was living through it’s own version of desperate times (that supposedly call for desperate measures) – Sadat had just been assassinated by terrorists. But I think it should be obvious by now that the emergency laws did not solve that problem, and definitely did not make Egypt safer. Giving the police and the government unlimited ability to do whatever they want with no oversight and no checks or balances makes everyone significantly less safe.
Not only have people falsely been accused of terrorism abroad, but of course it’s happened here in the US too. One prime example is the case of Abdallah Al-Kidd, an American convert to Islam who was detained in 2003 for 16 days as a “material witness” to a former co-worker’s terrorism case (Sami Omar al-Hussayen). The idea of a material witness arrest is that the authorities can arrest someone if there is sufficient reason to suspect someone who is supposed to testify as a witness may run away, and it’s not meant to be a long-term thing. Basically the Department of Justice under Ashcroft used this type of arrest as a pretext to detain people without charge. Not only was Al-Kidd never charged with anything, his former co-worker was found innocent of all charges as well. That is not what justice looks like. I don’t think this was a case of someone arrested for political reasons using the accusation of terrorism as a cover, in all likelihood this was just plain old bigotry in action, but the point still stands that one certainly can be falsely accused of terrorism. I wonder whether we’ve gotten to the point where supporters of this insanity are OK with the idea that someone falsely accused of being a terrorist can be treated like they were one anyways.
In terms of using U.S. laws designed for terrorism for other purposes, that also has already happened. According to the ACLU of Massachusetts based on their inspection of a DoJ report, the FBI was spying on anti-war and social justice groups including PETA, Greenpeace, The Catholic Worker and the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh as “potential terrorist threats.” In the case of the Thomas Merton Center, FBI employees tried to justify photographing an anti-war event the center sponsored using fabricated information, and by claiming that the centers events were attended by Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent. Wonderful. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Patriot-News reported that the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security was “tracking groups engaged in lawful, peaceful protests, including groups opposed to natural gas drilling, peace activists and gay rights groups.” The outside organization they hired to monitor these groups was apparently not only feeding information to law enforcement but also companies who were the targets of these groups’ criticism.
In general, there is a great deal of precedent in the US and outside the US for using laws designed for terrorism against groups involved in non-violent political activism. According to a recent Associated Press report, more than half of the at least 35,000 people who have been convicted on terrorism-related charges were convicted in either Turkey or China, both of which are pretty widely recognized to use terrorism laws to suppress dissent. One of the anecdotes from that piece:
‘Naciye Tokova, a Kurdish mother of two, held up a sign at a protest last year that said, “Either a free leadership and free identity, or resistance and revenge until the end.” She couldn’t read the sign, because she cannot read.
She was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison under anti-terror laws.”
Back to the U.S.: this is not some minor legal point, we are talking about a bill that strips the country of one of the most basic protections of our rights. Due process is one of things that makes a democracy a democracy. And maybe you think that our current elected officials wouldn’t abuse their authority, which is probably incorrect to begin with, but beyond that, do you trust that to be the case for every president and every authority figure, forever? This is not a road we want to walk down.
Now is the time to take a stand. We need to make it abundantly clear to our government that we will not allow them to sign our rights away and that nullifying due process is a line we will not allow them to cross. A lot of the post 9/11 anti-terror laws have been really bad and we need to address that, but Congress attacking due process for U.S. citizens takes it to whole other level.
So, the practical side. How to make a strong statement that this is not acceptable. First off, letter writing and phone call campaigns are a good start. Imagine the phones ringing off the hook at the office of every congressperson who voted for this bill, flooded with people saying this is not acceptable, or even, I will not be voting for you because you voted for this bill. Imagine unseating every congressperson who voted for this. That would get their attention. There’s also a number of petitions you can sign. Last week there were a number of protests, if I hear of others I will be publicizing and attending. But probably the most important thing you can do right now is call or email the White House and urge Obama not to sign this bill. He has said he won’t veto it, but so far he has not signed it yet, so it’s still possible to prevent this going into effect at all.
Call/Email the White House
Who voted for it:
Final Senate vote on the bill: http://1.usa.gov/NDAAvote
Final Vote in the House: http://bit.ly/NDAAHouseVote
Contact info for their offices:
List of Twitter IDs for senators who voted for/against the NDAA:
Also, don’t forget to thank the ones who voted against it. Positive reinforcement is always a good thing.
ACLU petition: President Obama, Veto Indefinite Detentions
Amnesty International Petition: President Obama: Veto the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act
Care2 petition – Impeach All the Senators who Voted For Military Detainment of U.S. Citizens!
H.R. 1540: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-1540&tab=summary
S. 1867: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s112-1867
How it unfolded in the Senate: http://1.usa.gov/NDAAsteps
NDAA Final Transcript from the Senate Floor: http://bit.ly/NDAAfinal
Glenn Greenwald’s analysis: http://www.salon.com/2011/12/15/obama_to_sign_indefinite_detention_bill_into_law/singleton/