There’s a very important piece of legislation going through Congress right now named the USA Act. It would be in your best interest to take the time to learn about it.
The USA Act is an anti-terrorism legislation package that the Bush administration put together in light of the attacks. The House approved the legislation with a 337-79 vote last Friday and an almost identical version of it passed through the Senate the day before with a 96-1 vote. However, an unreported resistance to some of the act’s content has emerged, with over 120 groups joining with the American Civil Liberties Union to demand revisions to many sections.
Section 203 of the Act allows the CIA, FBI and local law enforcement officials to share information with no court approval required. This includes intercepted phone calls, Internet conversations and past history. On top of this, section 901 would empower the Director of the CIA to establish the priorities for the collection and use of intelligence information gathered in the United States. This cancels out the section of the CIA’s charter that strictly prohibits it from engaging in internal security functions.
There are reasons why there are laws right now preventing this kind of thing from happening. During the ’60s, the FBI and CIA set up operations to spy on American citizens (COINTELPRO and CHAOS, respectively). As many as 7,000 citizens were under surveillance as a part of the CIA’s Operation CHAOS, an operation with the purpose of spying on people opposed to the war in Vietnam — student activists and so-called black nationalists — and disrupting their lives and operations. The FBI spied on the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many more. When this came into the light in 1976, the Church Committee was formed to investigate. The Committee concluded that citizens had been spied on “on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts.” The Committee Report detailed how passive information-sharing between the CIA and other agencies became authorized spying on lawful political activity, which was protected by the First Amendment.
With the passage of the USA Act, all the safeguards that were set up to try to keep the government from abusing its power against law-abiding citizens will come crashing down. The judicial review of probable cause — required by the Fourth Amendment — is ignored. Law enforcement officials are allowed access to “dialing, routing and signaling information” without having to prove probable cause to a judge. This could apply to what you talk about on the phone, what websites you visit and what you write and receive through e-mail.
Sections 508 and 509 of the act undermine the confidentiality requirements for databases of student information. This includes financial information, grades, coursework and any other information maintained by the educational institution. This is unnecessary, since the Family Educational and Financial Privacy Act gives law enforcement officials all they need to access student records already.
Lastly, section 803 creates a new kind of crime that citizens can be prosecuted under, defined as “domestic terrorism.” The section states that a person commits domestic terrorism if they appear to have intended: “(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
This legislation could easily be used to prosecute political dissidents as terrorists. People arrested at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, if this legislation had been law at the time, could have been tried as terrorists. In addition, this section of the act gives the federal government the authority to prosecute violations of state law, which are supposed to be handled in state courts.
Common sense says there have to be some new precautions taken in light of the events of Sept. 11 and the bombing of Afghanistan. However, it’s very disconcerting that there has been virtually no media coverage of the USA Act. This could be to reduce the amount of public scrutiny over the bill’s content, allowing it to reach final approval faster.
This act is not aimed at controlling DP keg parties, so many won’t care about it. However, it can be used to spy on politically active groups or citizens, as well as citizens of Middle Eastern descent. In its present form, the bill poses a threat to our rights as American citizens. Back in the day, being an American citizen didn’t mean blindly following whatever the federal government said. It meant defending our rights and our freedoms, especially the Constitution. I urge all concerned citizens and groups, namely student action groups like CalPIRG and local politicians, to stand up and demand revisions in this act to prevent our rights from being taken away.
The House anti-terrorism bill is H.R. 3108. The Senate bill is S. 1510. You can find them at http://thomas.loc.gov. Information for those wishing to take action can be found at http://www.aclu.org.
Drew Atkins is a freshman political science major.