Joshua Frank: Bye, Bye Civil Liberties

By Joshua Frank

I’m still wondering where all the damn outrage is, and I’m not talking about the Foley scandal. On September 29 the Senate voted 100-0 in favor of the pork swollen Pentagon Budget, which earmarked $70 billion for our ongoing military ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was no debate over the appropriations and not one Democrat voted against the egregious spending. On the same day, the Senate also overwhelmingly approved the dismantling of habeas corpus for “enemy combatants”. Twelve Democrats sided with the Republicans to allow the US government to detain people arbitrarily and indefinitely.

We shouldn’t be all that surprised the Democrats didn’t filibuster the awful bill, which also expanded the definition of “enemy combatant” to include anybody who “has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. No, the Democrats have long been on the frontlines of the federal government’s assault on our civil liberties.

In fact, what we are seeing today is just a logical continuation of a foundation laid during the Clinton era. Before the now well-known Patriot Act there was The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was signed into law following the Oklahoma City bombing that took place on August 19, 1995. “The act was wide-ranging, dealing with everything from the making of plastic explosives to trading in nuclear materials,” writes Georgetown law professor David Cole and James X. Dempsey in Terrorism and the Constitution.

“Members of Congress immediately felt tremendous pressure to pass antiterrorism legislation,” Cole and Dempsey recall. “It did not matter that the proposals in the President’s initial bill were directed largely against international terrorism, while the Oklahoma bombing was the work of homegrown discontents … Eager to get the bill on the President’s desk by the April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Senate adopted the conference report on April 17 in a 91-8 vote. The next day, the House also adopted the report by a vote of 293-133. On April 24, President Clinton signed The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.”

“To make the death penalty effective,” explains civil liberties expert Elaine Cassel in The War on Civil Liberties, “meant making it harder to appeal convictions of capital offenses.” Clinton’s law, says Cassel, also “[made] it a crime to support even the lawful activities of an organization labeled as terrorist … [authorized] the FBI to investigate the crime of ‘material support’ for terrorism based solely on activities protected under the First Amendment … [freezes] assets of any US citizen or domestic organization believed to be an agent of a terrorist group, without specifying an ‘agent’ … [expanded] the powers of the secret court … [repealed] the law that barred the FBI from opening investigations based solely on activities protected under the First Amendment … [and allowed] the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called the US Citizenship and Immigration Services) to deport citizens (mostly Muslims) upon the order of INS officials.” 

Of course, these are but a few of the ways in which the Clinton administration infringed upon civil liberties. Speaking of the legacy of these breaches in the guarantee of civil liberties, Clinton himself admitted to making “a number of ill-advised changes in our immigration laws, having nothing to do with fighting terrorism.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In the wake of September 11, it wasn’t surprising that Clinton’s successor George W. Bush legislated additional infringements upon civil liberties in the name of patriotism and national security. And yes, the Democrats overwhelmingly supported the Patriot Act in both of its awful versions. But it wasn’t the Patriot Act that allowed the federal government to make those sweeping detentions across the country immediately following 9/11 — it was Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty bill.

So, who is honestly supposed to believe that ushering the Democrats back into office in November will bring any sort of legitimate change — in Iraq, or back at home?

-Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, and edits

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