Bush Administration Decides Who's a Terrorist
BTL Q&A: Bush Administration Decides Who's a Terrorist
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Between The Lines
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Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release June 24, 2002
White House Assigns Itself the Power to Determine Who is a Terrorist, While Denying an American Defendant Due Process and Access to Attorney
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Interview with Theresa Younger, executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union
Interview by Scott Harris
Attorney General John Ashcroft announced last week that Abdullah al-Muhajir, an American citizen, also known as Jose Padilla, was detained by federal agents in early May, accused of participating in an al Qaeda plot to explode a radioactive bomb in the U.S. For over a month, the former gang member from Chicago has been locked up in a military prison without being formally charged and is denied the right to consult with an attorney.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against New York City and Washington, the Bush administration has systematically denied due process to more than a thousand detained immigrants -- and now it appears -- U.S. citizens. The White House defends its actions by citing World War II era Supreme Court decisions upholding the government's right to treat those it accuses of working for foreign powers as enemy combatants.
But civil liberties advocates warn that the erosion of constitutionally mandated checks and balances on government power will have far-reaching consequences for our democracy and America's standing in the world community. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Theresa Younger, executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, who examines the Bush administration's assigning onto itself unilateral powers to determine the guilt or innocence of suspected terrorists without judicial review.
Theresa Younger: What the Bush administration keeps saying is that they respect the constitution and the Bill of Rights and that all of their actions will stay within the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What they've done here is the president himself has completely taken the rights of this gentleman away by declaring him an enemy combatant. The president is now the person that can determine which Americans will have constitutional rights and which will not. And that's a very, very scary spot for us to be in.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration since Sept. 11 -- while insisting that they're making us safer -- have not necessarily been making us safer. They've just been taking away a considerable amount of our rights.
There's nothing wrong with the American judicial system technically. We know that in times of crisis when we have had other terrorist attacks, the American court system has worked. So we need to go back to that. The government has yet to tell us why it wouldn't work for us to try this gentleman in the American courts. I think that's a very important thing we need to consider.
The American courts have worked, and they worked during the 1993 World Trade Center bombers (trial). They worked when we went through the case of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. They have worked. We need to allow them to work. What's interesting right here is that although Mr. Padilla has not been charged with anything, non-citizens like Zacarias Moussaoui are being tried in the American courts and here we have an American that's not even being tried in the Americans courts and being denied complete due process. We don't know if he's spoken to a lawyer. We don't know what his charges are. Those are very serious concerns because if you can do this to one American citizen, you can do it to a multitude of American citizens.
Between The Lines: How do you respond to what we hear very often from the White House that "this is a time of war and extreme measures must be taken to protect the nation?"
Theresa Younger: This may be a time of crisis, and some would determine that this is a time of war -- others would not. Congressional leadership hasn't declared it a time of war. But regardless of all of that, we cannot just throw out all of our rights and say, "Here government, we're not going to hold you accountable, you can just do whatever." Because we won't get them back and they will start infringing on the everyday citizen's rights when they get too close. So we do need to be very, very aware. People need to inform themselves and they need to take responsibility for speaking up and questioning the government. Is what they are doing making us a safer, more effective, more upstanding world citizen, or are we undermining the very principles by which we have built America?
We have to look back at our very own history. In times of crisis, the government has taken advantage of the American people. It preys on them, and that's what's happened here. Particularly when we talk about the FBI regulations. I mean it was not that long ago, we don't have to go back 100 years. All you have to go back is between 1950 and 1970. We know that there were real significant civil liberties infringements placed on civil rights activists like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The phones that were tapped; campaigns that were started; fishing expeditions to search for things that went on for years and years and years. Guidelines were put in place in the 1970s so that the government could not spy randomly on the American people for their political beliefs. And now those guidelines have been lifted. None of the laws that changed would have affected the events of Sept. 11. The FBI has an enormous amount of information.
Right now what we do know, and what we've seen in the past few weeks, is that they don't have the ability to go through all of the information that they have. So we don't need to give them more opportunities to gather more information. We need to make sure that they are analyzing the information that they currently have.
Between The Lines: What are some of your concerns about where this is all headed if unchecked -- where the White House has unilateral power to designate and imprison people they suspect of being terrorists?
Theresa Younger: I really have enormous concerns, because it's harder to get (our rights) back once you've given them away. And I think that if the Bush administration continues at the level they are, we will have nothing left; we will have turned over everything and there is still no assurance that there will not be another terrorist attack. There is no assurance that we are a safer more sound society. All it means is that we have handed over a whole bunch of rights, and not just ours, not just this generation, but the next generation. Because history will repeat itself, and if we're looking back and saying, "Oh, 40, 50 years ago we did that, so let's do it again today," it's going to take us another 40 or 50 years to get to the point we are today.
I'm very concerned about what the future looks like, what legacies are we leaving our children? And when we hand over our rights, we're also handing over the rights of the person sitting next to us and we all need to be very aware of what those rights are. Because once they're gone, you don't know when they're going to be used against you. You don't know who's going to come knocking on your door. And because the definition of terrorism is so incredibly broad in the USA Patriot Act, we need to be very aware of what's happening around us. Because the government, if they can just pick and choose at any time which American citizens will be terrorists, they might pick and choose you one day.
For more information contact the American Civil Liberties Union by calling (212) 549-2500 or visit their Web site at http://www.aclu.org
Find more related interviews and listen to an excerpt of this interview in a RealAudio segment or in MP3 on our Web site at http://www.btlonline.org for week ending June 28, 2002.