United States officials from George W. Bush down to the US Army?s first lieutenants justify the attack on Iraq as a mission to bring democracy to that land.

But civil liberties, which, together with free elections, constitute the bedrock of democratic societies, have been under grave threat in the United States since September 11, 2001.

US civil libertarians (see www.aclu.org) in fact warn that the atmosphere in the United States has been so poisoned that it is close to reaching the same level of civil rights restrictions that occurred in that country in the 1950s during the McCarthy era.

That era of repression?when government officials were subjected to loyalty checks and ordinary people hounded out of their jobs and neighborhoods for their beliefs, and in some cases tried and convicted on trumped-up charges of espionage for the Soviet Union?was named after Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

It was McCarthy’s speech before the US Senate in the early 1950s, accusing US government agencies including the State Department of harboring communists and communist agents, which triggered a far-ranging witch-hunt. By the time it was over, the witch-hunt had created a situation in US academic, cultural and even film circles in which neighbor informed on neighbor and people avoided their friends suspected of harboring unacceptable political beliefs.

A partial list of the initiatives taken by the Bush administration to curtail civil rights shows how far the Bush people have pushed back the US Bill of Rights since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of September 11, 2001.

On September 21, 2001, or 10 days after the attack, the chief immigration judge closed all deportation proceedings to the public and the press when directed to do so by the Justice Department.

This was followed on October 17 by a directive from Attorney General John Ashcroft (the equivalent of the Philippines’ secretary of justice) limiting the US government’s compliance to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) supposedly because of the threat of terrorism. The directive, however, actually covered all government information, including those without a national security implication.

The biggest blow on American civil liberties came on October 26, through the hurriedly passed USA Patriot Act. For starters, the Act granted the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies access to the medical, financial and student records of any US resident or citizen. It compelled courts to issue subpoenas to obtain such records whenever requested by the FBI so long as the latter states that the records are needed for an investigation into international terrorism.

Under the provisions of the Act, the FBI can access the entire database of a credit card company, or the records of anyone who has used a public library. It can also obtain information on anyone in any hotel, hospital, or university, and does not have to show that a crime is, has been, or is about to be committed.

The Patriot Act also clips the power of US courts to prevent law-enforcement agencies from abusing their power to monitor telephone and Internet communication if they say the surveillance is for antiterrorism investigations. The Act also permits the same agencies to investigate citizens for criminal matters, and authorizes the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) to identify which citizens or residents may be placed under surveillance. This part of the Act puts the CIA, previously authorized only for international spying, back into domestic espionage.

The Act also allows the Justice Department to indefinitely detain (as in the Philippines during the martial-law period) noncitizens based on no more than suspicion of terrorist links, and to deny readmission into the US of noncitizens who have spoken out against US policies and interests, despite the protection afforded free speech by the US Constitution’s First Amendment.

Like the Philippines’ own antiterrorism bills, the Act also defines “domestic terrorism” very broadly, enabling the US government, should it so wish, to label as terrorist even legal organizations, and to subject them to surveillance, wiretapping and criminal charges.

The Patriot Act also authorizes secret searches into private homes, cars, computers, workplaces and reading materials without the knowledge of the individual concerned so long as the searches can be claimed to be in connection with either antiterrorism or ordinary criminal investigations.

On November 9, 2001, Ashcroft announced a plan to target for questioning, and possible detention and deportation, some 5,000 men from the Middle East and South Asia who entered the US on non-immigrant visas (which include visitors, business and student visas) despite their not being suspects in any criminal activity.

A few days later, on November 13, in a move reminiscent of martial law in the Philippines, Bush authorized himself to try by military tribunal anyone suspected of terrorism, or of aiding and hiding a terrorist. Bush in effect gave himself the power to decide who are protected by the US Constitution?s Bill of Rights and who are not. In the best tradition of Third World dictatorships, the military trials would be held in secret, and no court in the US or elsewhere can review the tribunal?s proceedings.

The Justice Department a few months later announced the expansion of, and additional funding for its Neighborhood Watch Program to include watches on terrorism. Civil libertarian groups fear that the program will encourage the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities. It too is oddly reminiscent of similar programs in place in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation and the martial-law period?but presumably without the use of hooded informers.

Continuing its policy of racial profiling?a form of racism which singles out the members of particular races for investigation for no other reason than their racial origins ?the Justice Department announced March 20, 2002, that an additional 3,000 people of Middle Eastern and South Asian ethnicity were to be questioned, despite their not being suspected of any criminal offense.

This is a partial list, in which one has to include the decision to imprison some 3,000 people, most of them of Middle Eastern nationality or origin, suspected of involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the US military base of Guantanamo in Cuba. The detainees have been denied counsel, are habitually shackled and hooded, and are kept in cages open to sun and rain.

The US government argument for this inhumane treatment is that, despite the “war on terrorism,” the detainees are not “prisoners of war” but criminals. To the argument that they are nevertheless entitled to the protection of US law, the US government has argued that because Guantanamo is not a country, US law does not apply to them. (US laws do apply in Guantanamo, since it is a US military base.)

These initiatives do not include efforts to criminalize antiwar protests, which the US government and its hacks in the media have argued constitute treason in a time of war. American civil liberties groups in fact have their hands full on a vast range of attempts to curtail the Bill of Rights in the name of the “war on terrorism.”

In many other instances, they have also had to contest Bush administration efforts to bar the courts from reviewing government actions, which, says the American Civil Liberties Union, constitutes a vital check on government abuse as envisioned by the Founding Fathers of the American Union.

Despite these efforts to erode democracy at home by the Bush coterie of war hawks and fundamentalists, the same coterie does keep prattling about “bringing democracy to Iraq” as it rains bombs on that country. Let’s just hope against hope that the democracy they do bring to Iraq after pulverizing it will include not only the right of US multinationals to exploit Iraqi oil, but also the right of every Iraqi to free speech and a fair trial that these champions of freedom and democracy are trying to deny their own citizens back home.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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