Some really scary things are happening around here these days.
Congress has become a place of great incivility and rancor, which threaten to undermine any hope of legislative remedy to a myriad of problems, from Social Security to soaring health-care costs to immigration to a steadily crumbling manufacturing base once the envy of the world.
But perhaps the most frightening prospect for Americans is an unfettered national police force with the sole discretion to determine who can be investigated as a potential terrorist. That’s the impact of little-known proposals to greatly expand the powers of the FBI, permitting its agents to seize business records without a warrant and to track the mail of those in terrorist inquiries without regard to Postal Service concerns.
Because the government can label almost any group or individual a terrorist threat, the potential for abuse by not having to show probable cause is enormous, prompting civil libertarians to correctly speculate about who will guard against the guardians. Up until now the answer was the Constitution as interpreted by the judiciary. But it is clear that sidestepping any such restriction is the real and present danger of the post-9-11 era.
A wise man, the late Sen. John Williams of Delaware, once counseled that any proposed legislation should be regarded in the light of its worst potential consequence, particularly when it came to laws that enhance the investigative and prosecutorial powers of the government at the expense of civil rights. This is most likely to occur in times of national stress, when the Constitution is always vulnerable to assault _ i.e., the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The scenario Williams warned about runs something like this.
You are innocently standing on a street corner waiting to cross when you are approached by a complete stranger who politely, but in a low voice, asks directions to a certain address or area. You, of course, are utterly unaware that the person is under surveillance in a terrorist investigation. You respond in a friendly manner. And although the exchange takes only a few seconds, it is enough to make those following the suspect curious about you. You are identified and a background check reveals that you or your spouse has a relative of Middle Eastern extraction or that you recently traveled to a Middle Eastern country or that you contributed to a charity bazaar sponsored by a church or group under suspicion of passing money through to a terrorist cause.
Suddenly, you are caught in a major inquiry, your personal business records are seized and your mail is tracked. It doesn’t take long for your friends and neighbors to learn that you are being investigated, and the result of that is predictable. You and your family are shunned. Your business begins to dwindle and before the nightmare has ended, which can take months, your life is in shambles. The truth never catches up with the fiction and the bureau, which has difficulty in saying the word “sorry,” leaves you high and dry, twisting slowly in the wind.
Think it can’t happen that way? Well, it does all the time. Ask the lawyer in Oregon whom the FBI misidentified as having taken part in the terrorist bombing of the Spanish railway. Ask any number of persons since Sept. 11, 2001, arrested and detained for months without charges or counsel before they were released.
If that isn’t enough to satisfy you about the inadvisability of these proposals, think back to the Cold War days when the most casual acquaintance with a group or person on J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-communist watch list could land one in water hot enough to make life miserable for a long time _ maybe even put him or her on one of the infamous blacklists.
If you weren’t around in those times, read about them. One thing you will learn quickly is that the sole determination of who or what had communist inclinations belonged to the FBI. Even then, however, Congress was smart enough not to rescind the checks and balances that protect our civil liberties. Federal law-enforcement officers outside the FBI have complained of late about the bureau’s penchant for seizing jurisdiction over almost any crime by relating it to terrorism.
Both of these over-reactive proposals are as fearsome as the threat of another al Qaeda attack, for they accomplish the same thing: the intrusion on and disruption of the rights of Americans. Like portions of the Patriot Act, which are rightly being challenged by conservatives as well as liberals, they are medicine worse than the cancer.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)