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Amnesty's Chip Pitt: Democracy in Action?

Democracy in Action?

By Chip Pitts
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sunday 12 June 2005

Friday's Congressional hearing on the USA Patriot Act and civil liberties was indeed an interesting experience.

The hearing, called under a special rule by the Democratic minority members, was one of the relatively rare recent opportunities that a diverse selection of Patriot Act critics have had to voice their concerns to Congress, and the only opportunity thus far to begin to highlight the links between the depredations of rights at home and abroad.

It was also unique in ending abruptly in what the New York Times described as "an angry uproar," the Washington Post called "a cacophony of protests," and other news outlets simply agreed was "chaos."

At issue was the USA Patriot Act, portions of which sunset at the end of this year. The President gave yet another major speech urging complete renewal of those provisions last week, and the Senate Intelligence Committee after closed door hearings agreed with him that the law should not only be preserved, but expanded.

As if it's not enough that law enforcement can now obtain your library and bookstore records in secret and without probable cause, clandestinely search your home without prior notice, and consider you a terrorist for peaceful civil disobedience, the Senate Intelligence Committee wants to expand FBI administrative subpoena authority to obtain all kinds of records without even the semblance of judicial review, and even allow them to get copies of your mail.

Not only my organization, Amnesty International, but groups ranging from the ACLU and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, to Bob Barr's conservative coalition of gun owners and professional organizations ("Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances"), fault the administration's unwillingness to acknowledge the invasions of constitutional rights occasioned by the Patriot Act, and strongly oppose the unjustified additional powers sought.

As Fox News reported, "the hearing ended abruptly when committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., abruptly gaveled the meeting to an end and walked out, followed by other Republicans." Points of order raised by the Democrats were ignored.

Several Congressman at the hearing strongly criticized Amnesty International, mischaracterizing our positions and even stating that we were actually endangering American lives by documenting the administration's tragic and counterproductive torture policy. I was prevented from responding, until the barrage became so great that Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D- N.Y.) insisted, as a "point of decency," that I be allowed to do so.

My response emphasized that it was not Amnesty International that created the firestorm of outrage over the abuses at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere - but the administration officials themselves. They were the ones who constructed Guantánamo and other secret detention centers around the world as legal "black holes," denied access to Amnesty and the Red Cross and others, and created both the rationale and the environments conducive to torture, ill-treatment, "disappearances," arbitrary detention, military trials, and extra-judicial executions.

Then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Justice Department lawyers drafted memos arguing that Guantánamo was beyond the law, that the President's commander-in-chief authority allowed overriding rights in the Constitution and international law, that customary international law doesn't bind the President, and that "torture" could be narrowly redefined as physical pain akin to that accompanying "death or organ failure" (so that any physical abuse short of that would not be torture). The President himself wrote that the Geneva Conventions would not be extended to those deemed "al Qaeda" (without saying how membership in that organization would be confirmed), and that those "legally entitled to humane treatment" would be humanely treated (ignoring firm international law that everyone is entitled to humane treatment). Defense Secretary Rumsfeld personally authorized hiding "ghost detainees" from the Red Cross, as well as specific torture techniques including forced nudity, the use of dogs, hooding, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation.

What subsequently happened to these officials? White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales is the new US Attorney General. A chief author of the Justice Department memos, Jay Bybee, is a new life-tenured federal judge. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld continues his lively press conferences. And President Bush was re-elected.

Amnesty International's charges were repeatedly said at the hearing to be "absurd," echoing the statements of the President and other top administration officials to the same effect. What is truly absurd, even Kafkaesque, is this administration's continued focus on language to distract attention from the true issues and deny reality.

The "Patriot" Act is the most un-Patriotic law since the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. It undermines most of the core freedoms in the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, religion, assembly, press, privacy, due process, and equal protection. These are not just domestic constitutional rights. They are also international human rights, applying to everyone just because they are human, as does the right to be protected from cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment, and torture.

The administration defenders' refrain was that the Patriot Act has "nothing to do" with Guantánamo, indefinite detention, or the violations we're seeing around the world. But the underlying principles are no different. The same overbroad, preemptive, secretive, subjective, discriminatory, unchecked instances of executive power found throughout the Patriot Act are clearly evident in the violations Amnesty and others have documented at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. All violate human autonomy and dignity. All counterproductively undermine security as well as liberty.

The Justice Department's own Inspector General in 2003 documented post-9/11 violations at home that were different only in degree, not in kind, from those seen at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Muslims and Arabs and those mistaken for them (Sikhs and people of color generally) were treated as sub-human, beaten, spat upon, their religion insulted, their access to family, health care, and legal counsel denied. Some, like Mohammed Rafiq Butt, died in custody in jails right here in the US Yet abuses at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers abroad included many of the same practices used at the Metropolitan detention center in Brooklyn, or in Texas or other US prisons. Several of those implicated in the incidents abroad were previously US corrections officials with a history of prisoner abuse.

It pains me to say it, but a government that tolerates abuses at home is unlikely to be scrupulous when it comes to abuses abroad. Yet in a bizarre contortion of logic, some Congressmen at Friday's hearing placed the blame for the upsurge in global hatred for America - that at the extreme will inevitably manifest itself in increased terrorism - on Amnesty International. Kafkaesque.

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the administration has actively promoted Patriot Act type legislation around the world. Almost every nation in the world now has new counter-terror legislation, often modeled on the Patriot Act, and often invading similarly fundamental rights. The result? A global decline in the rule of law, with new space opened up for the rule of force favored by terrorists.

Amnesty International reiterates its call for Congress to appoint a truly independent commission, to ask the hard questions about who is responsible for the torture and ill-treatment now so clearly documented. And Amnesty urges appointment of a Special Counsel to hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

The 9/11 Commission was similarly resisted by the administration until public demands grew irresistible. As Friday's hearing shows, there's not much tolerance for allowing questions in this case. But one thing's for sure: neither the questions nor the drive for accountability are going away.


Chip Pitts is Board Chair of Amnesty International USA, and a Board Member of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

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