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Dissent Is Patriotic

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee's e-mail newsletter

March 2006, Vol. 5, No. 2


In this issue:

Please support our efforts to defend the Bill of Rights! To contribute funds or stock online, go to http://www.bordc.org/donate.php, or mail a check or money order to:
8 Bridge St., Suite A
Northampton, MA 01060


PATRIOT Act Reauthorization

By March 10, President Bush must sign the bill reauthorizing expiring PATRIOT Act provisions. This evening, March 7, the House will vote on the amendment bill (S. 2271), which the Senate passed last week. The final bill contains some new civil liberties protections, though not as many as we would have preferred, and adds several troubling new provisions. Read the final bill here: H.R. 3199.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee thanks the hundreds of local coalitions and groups, thousands of individuals, and dozens of allied organizations nationwide who have tirelessly and courageously stood up for the principles upon which the United States was founded. Let’s take a look at the impact of the grassroots movement on the recent congressional debate and what we must accomplish as we continue our fight.

Impact of the grassroots and allies

The success in Congress of grassroots work to restore civil liberties, summarized below, is all the more impressive when set against the backdrop of the most divisive Congress in recent memory, which exposes virtually every issue it considers to a partisan lens.

  • The administration and its defenders made several concessions that it had not intended to make, such as more checks on the use of section 215 and three new sunset clauses. Furthermore, several senators have vowed to continue working for more changes, including Senator Arlen Specter, the chief Senate sponsor of the reauthorization bill. On March 6, Senator Specter introduced a bill, S. 2369, that includes the four amendments that Senators Feingold and Bingaman had offered before the Senate reauthorization votes.
  • Congress’s reauthorization process was longer (nearly a full year, beginning on April 4, 2005), broader, and less partisan than anyone could have predicted. We attribute this partly to the size, continuing growth and energy, and nonpartisan character of the national grassroots movement and the tireless work of our allies.
  • The civil liberties resolutions were mentioned frequently on the House and Senate floor and in committee meetings, proving that they resonate with members of Congress. On June 15, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) mentioned the resolutions when he introduced his Freedom to Read Amendment, which passed with a 51-vote margin. From December 14 through 16, at least ten members of Congress mentioned the resolutions in floor speeches about the reauthorization, and used the resolutions to justify the Senate filibuster. On March 1 and 2, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) read aloud to his Senate colleagues the eight statewide resolutions, four resolutions from Wisconsin, and two campus resolutions.

What’s next?

The administration’s cynical strategies for defending its antiterrorism laws and policies exploit public fears, threaten members of Congress to vote their way or risk being labeled “weak on terrorism,” use secrecy and attacks on the press and government whistleblowers, and inflate the success of its antiterrorism laws and policies. Even with these strategies, the administration is losing ground: Since Congress’s October 2001 votes on the PATRIOT Act, members willing to vote against the PATRIOT Act have tripled in the House and increased tenfold in the Senate.

The administration’s strategies compare poorly to those of the grassroots, which continues to educate people about the new laws and policies and to engage people, regardless of political leanings, in open debate. These methods have resulted in eight state legislatures and 397 local and county governments passing resolutions upholding the rights and liberties of nearly 85 million residents (one-third of the U.S. population), a volume that is unprecedented in modern history.

Going forward, let us be mindful of the weaknesses in the administration’s strategy and work on strategies for continuing to weaken the administration’s ability to stir up irrational fears of terrorism among the general public. In upcoming issues, we’ll introduce new resources and tools you can use to organize in your community and to help make sure voters in your area know where candidates stand on civil liberties when they vote in November. If you’d like to organize a group in your area, please contact us at info@bordc.org.

Here are a few actions you can take right now.

  • Call and write the ten senators who opposed the reauthorization to thank them for their courageous stands. They are Senators Akaka (D-HI), Bingaman (D-NM), Byrd (D-WV), Feingold (D-WI), Harkin (D-IA), Jeffords (I-VT), Leahy (D-VT), Levin (D-MI), Murray (D-WA), and Wyden (D-OR).
  • If any are your senators, consider writing an op-ed or letters to the editor about why your senator’s action was the right choice.
  • If your senators disappointed you, let them know, and tell them what changes you want them to work for.

Grassroots News

California Statewide Resolution Passes!

On February 16, the California state legislature passed SJR 10, a resolution opposing civil liberties violations in the USA PATRIOT Act, introduced by California State Senator Liz Figueroa. It was a hard-fought, months-long campaign to pass a resolution in the nation’s most populous state. Residents of Long Beach played a pivotal role with the two assembly members who represent their community. Betty Karnette and Jenny Oropeza abstained from voting for SJR 10 back in August, when it first came before the assembly for a defeat of 32-38. Five months later, both legislators voted yes, along with 42 other assembly members, largely due to the hard work of grassroots phone calls and letters. The Senate easily passed the resolution 23-10, with two Republicans on board—Senators Tom McClintock from northwest Los Angeles County and Sam Aanestad from Redding, Chico and Nevada City.

The California Civil Rights Alliance spearheaded the campaign, with Bill of Rights Defense groups throughout the state working steadily to forge the alliances and make the phone calls and personal visits that won the resolution. Dick Seeley from the Glendale Bill of Rights Defense Committee even persuaded the mother of Assembly majority floor leader Dario Frommer to urge her son to vote yes. And he did!

But though the timing of the resolution’s passage should have made it possible to convince Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to stand with Senator Feingold and nine others in opposing the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, it did not. Both California senators voted to reauthorize the act, to the utter frustration and disappointment of all those who worked so hard to get SJR 10 passed in time to have an impact on Congress.

Rochester, NY, Greenfield, MA, State College, PA pass resolutions

Three community resolutions passed during the month of February bringing the total number of resolutions to 405. The Rochester Bill of Rights Committee and the Rochester Bill of Rights Coalition worked for many months to persuade the City Council to approve a resolution in the form of a letter to Senators Schumer and Clinton. Final, unaminous approval came on February 2.

In Greenfield, Massachusetts, members of the Greenfield Bill of Rights Committee were somewhat disappointed that their hard-fought declaration for a "civil liberties safe zone" was whittled down to a single statement by the Town Council. Nevertheless, the resolution that passed February 16 by an 8 to 3 vote after a contentious debate calls upon elected Federal Representatives to repeal provisions of the PATRIOT Act which present the appearance of conflict with the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

On February 21, with a standing room only crowd in attendance, the Borough Council of State College, Pennsylvania approved a resolution reaffirming their commitment to the "freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions" (view the Centre Daily story). Amendments to the original resolution dropped specific mention of the Patriot Act and substituted a broader reference to "several acts and orders enacted at the federal level to combat terrorism." Despite the mayor’s refusal to endorse the measure, it passed the council with a unanimous vote.

We congratulate the organizers from Rochester, Greenfield, and State College for their hard work and success!


NSA Warrantless Wiretapping

President Bush grabbed powers he knew he couldn't get Congress to enact as legislation, then told Congress it had given him those powers. When the New York Times broke the story about President Bush's authorization of the National Security Agency (NSA) warrantless wiretapping program in December, members of Congress were outraged that the Bush administration had skirted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). Congress had passed FISA in reaction to the FBI Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), to ensure that the U.S. government could no longer engage in domestic surveillance without a showing of probable cause that the person to be placed under surveillance was a foreign terrorist or spy.

Congress's bipartisan outrage appears to be morphing into a plan by several Republicans in leadership positions to make the administration's actions legal (retroactively, of course, because FISA violations are felonies that carry a five-year prison sentence!). The Justice Department's investigation of the program will focus only on who leaked information about the illegal program. A March 6 editorial in the New York Times, Kabuki Congress, says it all.

We offer the following resources and suggestions for contacting members of Congress about this issue and educating the general public about why the law must continue to require warrants for domestic wiretaps.

BORDC Resources

Our new resources page contains our responses to myths the Bush administration is using to defend its illegal program, a flyer, a model resolution based on the resolution introduced in the Vermont legislature, a petition for law students to sign (drafted by the Georgetown Law students who demonstrated during Attorney General Gonzales's speech at their school), a letter from 14 prominent constitutional law experts about the program, government documents, and more. Use them to contact your members of Congress, draft letters to the editor, and plan local forums.

Vermont Resolution

In February, Vermont Rep. Mike Fisher introduced a resolution on illegal eavesdropping in the Vermont legislature. Among its key provisions is that state and local government agencies, businesses and residents obtain an assurance that any surveillance by the NSA is court-approved. The measure also asks the Attorney General's Office to help Vermont businesses that are asked to cooperate without receiving an assurance. This resolution is the first of its kind in the U.S. The Judiciary Committee is expected to take it up during the current legislative session.

American Bar Association Resolution

The 400,000-member American Bar Association recently denounced Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program and accused him of exceeding his powers under the Constitution. At the group's mid-year meeting in Chicago, members passed a resolution (PDF) calling on Bush to abide by the limitations the Constitution imposes on a President. The group, which is the largest organization of lawyers in the nation, also asked that Congress thoroughly investigate the surveillance program to determine its extent and legality. A recent poll commissioned by the ABA reports that 77% of Americans have reservations about the president's secret surveillance program.

Sunshine Week

The second annual Sunshine Week kicks off on March 13, 2006 with a program on open government and secrecy to be broadcast from the National Press Club. Sunshine Week is a national initiative by libraries, schools, media organizations, and civic groups to highlight the importance of public access to government and the free flow of news and information. To download the flyer (PDF), click here.


Torture and Human Rights Abuses

14,000 Held in Iraq Without Trial

A new report by Amnesty International describes a dire human rights situation in Iraq, calling it "so egregious as to constitute crimes against humanity." The human rights organization reports that U.S.-led forces are holding 14,000 without trial (see the 3/6 Guardian story for more). The report documents torture and ill-treatment as well as a fundamental lack of due process for those taken prisoner.

UK Troops Beat Iraq Teenagers

One soldier has been arrested after the release of a video showing him among other UK troops beating Iraqi teenagers in 2004. The video, shot from the roof of a nearby building by another soldier who mocked the teenagers as they were beaten, was made public in 2006.

Photos and Video From Abu Ghraib

An Australian news program released new pictures and video footage of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison. The images, also available on the Internet, depict scenes of abuse—some more grotesque and shocking than the original photographs from the Iraq prison in 2004. A lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights compelled the U.S. government to release the documentary evidence of abuse, but government officials continued to deny that this shows torture is systematic.

Torture at Guantánamo

Mohammad al-Qahtani, touted by the U.S. as a major informant, claims his confessions at Guantánamo Bay were extracted by torture. His attorney, Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, has filed a challenge to his detention in federal court, describing al-Qahtani as a broken man who “painfully described how he could not endure the months of isolation, torture and abuse, during which he was nearly killed, before making false statements to please his interrogators.” His 84-page interrogation log is available here: http://www.time.com/time/2006/log/log.pdf.

Military officials at Guantánamo said they would not rule out using information extracted by torture in military trials at the camp.

Force-feedings by hunger strikers are being called torture by lawyers for some of the Guantánamo detainees. Mohammad Bawazir, a Yemeni detainee began a hunger strike in August, but even after he stopped resisting force-feedings, officials began strapping him to a chair and inserting a large tube into his nose and down his throat which caused “unbearable pain.” His attorneys have filed a 13-page injunction to stop the treatment.

Meanwhile, the lauded McCain torture ban is proving it will not protect prisoners at Guantánamo from torture. Administration lawyers are arguing that the torture ban doesn’t apply to detainees at the Cuba prison.

U.N. Investigation Finds International Law Violations at Guantánamo, Calls for Immediate Closure

The treatment of prisoners at U.S. military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, violates international law and constitutes a form of torture, according to a new U.N. investigation. Human rights rapporteurs interviewed former prisoners, lawyers, and the relatives of detainees over an 18-month investigation. The report cites several torture practices, including sleep deprivation, lengthy solitary confinement, and the use of other harsh U.S.-authorized interrogation techniques that violate international conventions barring cruel or inhumane treatment. Prisoners were also denied basic rights to religion and health.

The U.N. report (PDF), calls for the immediate closure of Guantánamo Bay. UN officials have repeatedly been denied the opportunity to conduct fact-finding missions to the facility, but relied on reports, including interviews with former detainees and their attorneys to create its findings. Following the report, Britain, France, Germany and Italy also called for the closing of the prison.

While representatives for the Pentagon and the Bush administration deny the report’s claims, the U.N. plans to extend the investigation to other U.S. military detention centers, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Extraordinary Rendition Case Dismissed

A U.S. federal judge dismissed a case against the U.S. government brought by Canadian citizen Maher Arar who was tortured in a Syrian prison after being rendered to Syrian officials by the U.S. in 2003. Arar says he will appeal the ruling. For more information, see the 2/27 Democracy Now! coverage.

The Mora Memo

Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora tried to stop Bush administration policies that wink at torture by sending a memo to the Department of Navy Inspector General in July 2004 (view the memo in PDF). But his efforts to establish clear humane standards for treatment of detainees were stymied by administration lawyers like John Yoo, who asserted the President’s right to order torture.

According to Mora, "The debate here isn't only how to protect the country. It's how to protect our values."

What you can do:

Organize a reading of the play, "Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" at a local gym, school, church, or community center. The Bill of Rights Defense Committee has all the tools and know-how you need to get started: http://bordc.org/grp/index.php. Readings in a number of communities have provided powerful experiences for readers and audiences alike, and provide context for organizing community actions.

June is Torture Awareness Month, and June 26 is UN International Day in Support of Victims and Survivors of Torture. Consider participating locally in a national, month-long campaign to end U.S. use of torture. Schedule a reading of the Guantánamo play, show the PBS documentary "The Torture Question," organize a vigil or an event with a speaker. For assistance, contact Linda Stone if you live east of the Mississippi River; Hope Marston if you live west of the Mississippi.


In Brief

Veteran’s Authority Nurse Investigated for ‘Sedition’ for Criticizing Bush

Laura Berg, a clinical nurse specialist at the Veteran's Authority Medical Center in Albuquerque, was accused of "sedition" after writing an editorial criticizing the Bush administration for its poor response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. After the letter was published, Berg’s computer was seized by VA administrators, and she was put under investigation. She now fears for her job and worries that the VA may have involved the FBI on her case. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has taken up the Berg case, writing in a recent letter to R. James Nicholson, Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, that “in a democracy, expressing disagreement with the government’s actions does not amount to sedition or insurrection—it is, and must remain, protected speech.” The ACLU of New Mexico is also working on Berg’s behalf. For more information, see the 2/8 Progressive article.

Foiled Al Qaeda Plot

On February 10 the White House released new information about a failed 2002 Al Qaeda plot to attack the U.S. by crashing a commercial jetliner into the "Library Tower," a Los Angeles skyscraper.

The Washington Post reported that there is significant disagreement within the intelligence community as to the seriousness of the threat. Several U.S. intelligence officials played down the relative importance of the alleged plot and attributed the timing of Bush's speech to politics. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticize the White House, said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk.

Hearing on Whistleblower Law

In mid-February, a House of Representatives committee heard the testimonies of several military and national security agency employees, both past and present, whose reputations and livelihoods have been damaged or destroyed because of their whistleblowing activities. The hearing is the first of its kind in over a decade. Committee chair Christopher Shays (R-CT) says that "the system is broken," and other lawmakers agree—there is virtually unanimous bipartisan support for enacting legislation to protect whistleblowers.

National Security Whistleblowers Coalition (NSWBC) founder Sibel Edmonds says, "National Security employees should not have to sacrifice their careers or financial security in doing what is right. Good employees are being chased out of jobs and fired by those who either are engaged in wrongful behavior or don’t want to hear about it."

On March 14, the NSWBC will hold a press conference in support of whistleblower protection and the recently introduced legislation to protect whistleblowers and taxpayers—S. 2285, the Whistleblower Empowerment, Security and Taxpayer Protection Act, proposed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). Visit the NSWBC website for more details.


Editor: Nancy Talanian, Director
Managing Editor: Meredith Gray, Administrator
Contributing Writers:
Hope Marston, West Region Organizer
Linda Stone, East Region Organizer
Ashley Nash-Hahn, Intern

Bill of Rights Defense Committee, Inc.
8 Bridge St., Suite A
Northampton, MA 01060

Web: http://www.bordc.org/
Email: info@bordc.org
Telephone: 413-582-0110
Fax: 413-582-0116


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