Civil Libertarians Warn of 'Patriot Act Lite'
By William Fisher
11/28/07 "IPS" -- -- NEW YORK, 27 Nov (IPS) - Civil libertarians
are worried that a little-known anti-terrorism bill now making
its way through the U.S. Congress with virtually no debate could
be planting the seeds of another USA Patriot Act, which was
hurriedly enacted into law after the al Qaeda attacks of Sep.
The Violent Radicalisation and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention
Act, co-authored by the former chair of the House of
Representatives Intelligence Committee, Jane Harmon, a
California Democrat, passed the House by an overwhelming 400-6
vote last month, and will soon be considered by the Senate.
The bill's co-author is Republican Congressman David Reichert of
Washington State. The Senate version is being drafted by Susan
Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Homeland
Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by
the hawkish Connecticut independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman. Harmon
is chair of the House Homeland Security Intelligence
Civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties
Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), say
the measure could herald a new government crackdown on dissident
activity and infiltration of universities under the guise of
The CCR's Kamau Franklin, a Racial Justice Fellow, told IPS,
'This measure looks benign enough, but we should be concerned
about where it will lead. It may well result in recommendations
for new laws that criminalise radical thought and peaceful
dissent, posing as academic study.'
Franklin added, 'Crimes such as conspiracy or incitement to
violence are already covered by both state and federal statute.
There is no need for additional criminal laws.'
He speculated that Congress 'may want to get this measure passed
and signed into law to head off peaceful demonstrations' at the
upcoming Republican and Democratic Party conventions. 'And no
Congressperson of either political party wants to vote against
this bill and get labeled as being soft on terrorism.'
Harman's bill would convene a 10-member national commission to
study 'violent radicalisation' (defined as 'the process of
adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose
of facilitating ideologically-based violence to advance
political, religious, or social change') and 'homegrown
terrorism' (defined as 'the use, planned use, or threatened use,
of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or
based and operating primarily within the United States [...] to
intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian
population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in
furtherance of political or social objectives').
The bill also directs the secretary of the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS) to designate a university-based research
'centre of excellence' where academics, policy-makers, members
of the private sector and other stakeholders can collaborate to
better understand and prevent radicalisation and homegrown
terrorism. Some experts are concerned that politics will unduly
influence which institution DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff will
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Chertoff was head of the
Criminal Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ), and played
a key role in implementing the department's roundup of hundreds
of Muslims who were detained without charge, frequently abused,
and denied access to legal counsel.
Critics of Harmon's bill point out that commission members would
all be appointed by a high-ranking elected official. Those
making these appointments would include the president, the
secretary of Homeland Security, the speaker and ranking member
of the House, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate,
and senior members of the House and Senate committees overseeing
Critics also fear that the bill's definitions of 'extremism' and
'terrorism' are too vague and its mandate too broad, and that
government-appointed commissions could be used as ideological
cover to push through harsher laws.
Congressional sponsors of the bill claim it is limited in scope.
'Though not a silver bullet, the legislation will help the
nation develop a better understanding of the forces that lead to
homegrown terrorism, and the steps we can take to stop it,'
Harman told Congress.
But the bill's purpose goes beyond academic inquiry. In a Nov. 7
press release, Harman said, 'the National Commission [will]
propose to both Congress and Chertoff initiatives to intercede
before radicalised individuals turn violent.'
According to the Centre for Constitutional Rights, the
commission 'will focus in on passing additional federal criminal
penalties that are sweeping and inclusive in criminalising
dissent and protest work more surveillance on thought rather
than on actions. Further, this bi-partisan attempt can set the
ground for an even more acquiescent Congress to presidential
power, never wanting to look weak on terrorism.'
The commission would be tasked with compiling information about
what leads up to violent radicalisation, and how to prevent or
combat it with the intent to issue a final report with
recommendations for both preventative and countermeasures.
Implementing the bill would likely cost some 22 million dollars
over the 2008-2012 period, according to the Congressional Budget
Office. But critics point out that the bill would duplicate work
already being done in and out of government.
For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) already
has a domestic terrorism unit; the U.S. intelligence community
monitors the homegrown terrorists and overseas networks that
might be reaching out to U.S. residents; and many universities
and think-tanks are already specialising in studying the
But Harman argues that a national commission on homegrown
terrorism could benefit the country in much the same way as the
9/11 Commission, the Silberman/Robb Commission or other
high-profile national security inquiries.
But groups like the CCR are wondering what exactly is meant by
'an extremist belief system'.
'The term is left undefined and open to many interpretations --
socialism, anarchism, communism, nationalism, liberalism, etc.
-- that would serve to undermine expressions that don't fit
within the allowable areas of debate. A direct action led by any
group that blocks traffic can be looked upon as being coercive,'
The bill says the Internet has aided in facilitating violent
radicalisation, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown
terrorism process in the U.S. by providing access to 'broad and
constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to U.S.
While civil liberties groups agree that focus on the Internet is
crucial, they fear it could set up far more intrusive
surveillance techniques, without warrants, and the potential to
criminalise ideas and not actions could mean penalties for a
stance rather than a criminal act.
The bill also uses the term 'ideologically-based violence,
meaning the use, planned use, or threatened use of force or
violence by a group or individual to promote the group or
individual's political, religious, or social beliefs.'
But the CCR and other groups ask, 'What is force? Is civil
disobedience covered under that, if arrested at a protest rally
and charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental
administration, or even assault, does that now open you up to
possible terrorist charges in the future?'
Some of the most egregious terrorist attacks in U.S. history
have been carried out by U.S. citizens, including the bombing of
the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Copyright © 2007 IPS North America
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