Dissent Is Patriotic
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee's email newsletter
April 2009, Vol. 8, No. 4
In this issue:
- Obama DOJ Escalates State Secrets Claims in Wiretapping Case
- BORDC News: Profile: Shahid Buttar, BORDC’s New Executive Director; Board President Chip Pitts Speaks to ABA
- Grassroots News: BORDC-Tacoma Participates in Week of Action to Hold DHS Accountable
- Get Involved in the People's Campaign for the Constitution!
- Law & Policy: National Security Letters Reform Act Aims to Prevent NSL Abuse; DOJ Releases Torture Memos, But Says ‘No’ to Prosecutions; New Bill Would Give President Unprecedented Power over Internet
- In Brief: RNC & DNC Receive Muzzle Awards; New York Review of Books Releases Full ICRC Report; Book Groups Launch New Effort to Amend Patriot Act
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Rebuffing civil liberties advocates, the Obama administration late last month petitioned a U.S. District Court in San Francisco to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the government’s warrantless wiretapping program because of state secrets concerns. But the Obama administration went even further than the Bush administration did in its claims of state secrets privilege: the Justice Department suggested it might take classified documents back from the Court to prevent the plaintiff’s lawyers from seeing them.
The case, al-Haramain v. Bush, was filed by an Islamic charity in 2006. The charity, allegedly a front for al-Qaeda, learned in documents mistakenly disclosed to them by the government that they had been spied on as part of the National Security Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. The Bush administration tried to block the suit based on claims that it endangered state secrets, but Chief Judge Vaughn Walker refused to dismiss the case. The Obama administration followed with its own request for dismissal, this time going further than ever before with threats to reclaim documents it considers “state secrets.” Find out more about the case from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
During his campaign, Obama criticized the Bush administration for invoking the state secrets privilege too often (it has been used dozens of times over the past several years to block access to documents related to the warrantless wiretapping program). Now, however, Obama's administration is itself claiming the privilege and even escalating beyond the previous administration’s already egregious actions.
An expert, speaking to the Washington Post, explained,
"There has to be other ways to protect secret information without having to block accountability," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine. He said that "state secrets" has become a sort of "talismanic phrase" uttered by government officials who want to dispose of inconvenient or troubling challenges to their authority.
Despite Obama’s promises to improve government transparency, Attorney General Eric Holder has indicated the Justice Department is considering reversing Bush administration state secret claims in only one of 20 pending cases.
Americans cannot allow the government to abuse the state secrets privilege in order to hide the government’s own illegal actions. A strong and united grassroots response is the only way to counteract these constitutional violations. If we are to combat the expansion of executive power, we must call on the President to live up to his own ideals and demand that Congress and the Courts fulfill their constitutional roles as co-equal branches of government, providing checks and balances on executive authority.
BORDC is gearing up to take on these and other issues on the national stage. Are you ready to get involved? Join the People’s Campaign for the Constitution today and start organizing in your community and with people like you all across the country. Contact our grassroots organizer, Emma for information and advice. What you do in your community can make a difference—get started now!
Profile: Shahid Buttar, BORDC’s New Executive Director
BORDC is pleased to announce that our new executive director, Shahid Buttar, will be joining us next month!
Shahid Buttar is a civil rights lawyer, non-profit leader, hip-hop MC, independent columnist, grassroots organizer, singer, and poet. Shahid comes to us from his most recent position with Muslim Advocates, a non-profit legal advocacy and educational organization based in the Bay Area of California, where he directed a program combating racial & religious profiling. He also co-chairs the Rule of Law Institute, a non-profit organization supporting international efforts to defend or restore the Rule of Law.
Shahid also served as a spokesperson for grassroots resistance at the 2005 Counter-Inaugural and the 2004 Republican National Convention, where Democracy Now! named one of his public addresses among "The Best of 2004." Shahid has organized several grassroots groups across the country, including the Stanford Spoken Word Collective; the San Francisco Collaborative Arts Insurgency / 16th & Mission; the DC Guerrilla Poetry Insurgency; and the DC Resistance Media Collective.
A 2003 graduate of Stanford Law School, he served as Professor Lawrence Lessig’s Constitutional Law Teaching Assistant and as Executive Editor of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal. While based in Washington, DC, from 2003 to 2008, Buttar also served the American Constitution Society for Law & Policy as Associate Director for Communications & Outreach. He in investment banking in Chicago while pursuing his undergraduate degree from 1991 to 2000, when he graduated summa cum laude from Loyola University Chicago.
As a musician, Shahid has performed around the world for audiences as large as 50,000. His debut CD, Get Outta Your Chair, was released in 2008 and features music from the funk, blues, hip-hop, house, drum 'n bass, and South Asian fusion traditions, including Bumpin’ in My SUV and the Baghdad Blues.
Chip Pitts, president of BORDC’s board of directors, is thrilled to have Buttar join the organization. “We are incredibly happy to have someone of Shahid Buttar’s passion and grassroots qualifications leading BORDC. With him as our executive director, there is no limit to our ability to reinvigorate the grassroots civil liberties movement and effect substantive change in American government.”
Board President Chip Pitts Speaks to ABA
Chip Pitts, president of BORDC’s board of directors, gave a presentation this month at the American Bar Association’s spring meeting in Washington, DC. In the presentation, titled “Re-Shaping the Human Rights Agenda: Opportunities in the New Administration,” Pitts told the ABA that while the Obama administration is to be commended for its Executive Orders (closing Guantanamo within a year, bringing interrogation practices within the guidelines of the Army Field Manual, and reviewing detention practices), in these and other policy areas, the administration has shown it will not move unless the grassroots pressure requires it to move.
As Pitts explained, The Obama administration’s appeal of Federal Judge John Bates’s ruling that certain non-Afghan detainees have habeas corpus rights, for example, merely creates the potential for Bagram and other locales become “new Guantánamos.” Other serious areas of concern include ongoing warrantless surveillance, the so-called “Jack Bauer” exception to torture (and the fact that even the Army Field Manual allows problematic techniques such as isolation and sleep deprivation), invoking the state secrets privilege, rendition, fusion centers, continued racial profiling, and insulating Bush administration officials from accountability.
BORDC-Tacoma Participates in Week of Action to Hold DHS Accountable
From Los Angeles, California to Boston, Massachusetts, activists across the country held actions this past week as part of the Rights Working Group and Detention Watch Network’s Week of Action to Hold DHS Accountable. BORDC-Tacoma participated by hosting a vigil at the Northwest Detention Center, a federal immigration prison that BORDC-Tacoma has been investigating and protesting for over five years.
Are you a high school teacher interested in connecting with other high school teachers about how to best teach students about our civil liberties? A rabbi looking to connect with other faith leaders to take a stand against human rights abuses at detention centers? A librarian interested in in educating your library about the impact of the PATRIOT Act on library records? A college student wanting to organize other students to stop the racial profiling of Muslims? The PCC is forming affinity groups for students, educators, clergy, attorneys, librarians, doctors, and people fluent in languages other than English. To be involved in one of these groups—or one we haven’t thought of—email Emma and put the group you’re interested in joining in the subject. Interested in a group not listed? Let us know that too!
Share Your News
Have experience forming an affinity group or local coalition that you want to share? Email us your thoughts for inclusion in our next newsletter.
Already up and running? We want to hear your news too, and share it in our next newsletter to inspire others. Email Emma!
Not Yet a PCC Member?
As a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act. Among other things, this law authorized the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to issue national security letters (NSLs), administrative subpoenas that seek information about individuals or private businesses without any judicial oversight. These letters also include gag orders that prohibit the recipient from informing anyone other than legal counsel about the NSL. Although the case of Doe v. Ashcroft in 2004 held the gag orders to be unconstitutional, since that time, the use of NSLs—with gag orders included—has skyrocketed. In 2006 alone, the FBI issued 49,425 NSLs, and, according to a report conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, the renewal of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2007 significantly expanded the FBI’s power to issue NSLs.
However, at the end of March of this year, Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) challenged the power of the executive branch to issue NSLs by reintroducing the “National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009.” This bill clearly delineates the conditions in which the FBI could issue an NSL (with a temporary gag order). Under this bill, an NSL can only be applied only during an ongoing investigation, to an individual clearly proven to be “a foreign power or agent of a foreign power,” and for a maximum of thirty days. To extend the NSL beyond those thirty days would require a court order. To protect Americans’ privacy, the bill mandates that any and all information obtained extrajudicially be destroyed. It also establishes procedures for collecting damages against the individual who issued the letter, if the information obtained was done so illegally.
Call today and ask your representative to cosponsor the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009. Call your senators and ask them to support the legislation in the Senate. Find your legislators’ contact information.
Though the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 maintains the legality of NSLs, it provides both judicial and legislative oversight regarding their use. Much work remains in the struggle to restore and protect our civil liberties, but perhaps this bill will represent one step in the process. A summary of the National Security Letters Reform Act of 2009 can be found through ArsTechnica, and Govtrack offers the text of the bill.
DOJ Releases Torture Memos, But Says ‘No’ to Prosecutions
On April 16, in response to litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Justice Department released four secret memos written by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel under the Bush administration. These memos were used by the Bush administration to justify waterboarding and other illegal interrogation techniques, which violate international treaties including the Geneva Conventions.
The Department of Justice has withdrawn the memos and says they no longer represent its legal views. However, President Obama released a statement along with the memos indicating that CIA operatives would not be prosecuted for torturing detainees.
New Bill Would Give President Unprecedented Power over Internet
Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) recently introduced a new bill that would have chilling effects for Internet freedom. The Cybersecurity Act of 2009, S. 773, would give the President the power to shut down Internet traffic in emergency situations or disconnect any critical infrastructure system or network on national security grounds. The bill would also create a centralized Cybersecurity Czar and give the government unprecedented powers over computer software, private network administration, and Internet services.
Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) President and CEO Leslie Harris said of the bill, “The cybersecurity threat is real, but such a drastic federal intervention in private communications technology and networks could harm both security and privacy.”
To find out more about the Cybersecurity Act and how it threatens privacy and security, see CDT’s policy post, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s blog post on the issue, and The Raw Story’s article about the bill.
RNC & DNC Receive Muzzle Awards
The Thomas Jefferson Center for Free Expression celebrates Jefferson’s April 13th birthday each year with the Muzzle Awards, which call “attention to those who in the past year forgot or disregarded Mr. Jefferson’s admonition that freedom of speech ‘cannot be limited without being lost.’” That two of this year’s winners were the Democratic and Republican National Committees “reveals that the disregard of First Amendment principles is not the byproduct of a particular political outlook, but rather that threats to free expression come from all over the political spectrum.”
Police arrested hundreds of protestors and journalists at both political conventions last summer, though few of those arrests resulted in convictions. The overreaction of the local police can be traced to the repressive atmosphere created by the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) designating the conventions “National Special Security Events” which led to extreme security measures including “free speech zones” for protesters out of sight—and sound—of the convention delegates. As many commentators have noted, that sort of limitation renders the freedom meaningless.
The Muzzle Award went to the DNC and RNC rather than to the over-reacting local police or to DHS because both major political parties, in spite of whatever freedom rhetoric was going on inside the conventions, acquiesced in the security measures being imposed outside. The eloquent text of the Muzzle Award is worth a read.
New York Review of Books Releases Full ICRC Report
As we reported in our March newsletter, journalism professor and author Mark Danner published excerpts of a confidential report, issued by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), on U.S. interrogation practices. The leaked report stated that U.S. treatment of detainees amounted to torture and violated the Geneva Conventions. This month, The New York Review of Books, the same publication in which Danner originally revealed the findings, released the full ICRC report. See Danner’s follow up article for more analysis and the full text of the report.
Book Groups Launch New Effort to Amend USA PATRIOT Act
Over the past five years, the Campaign for Reader Privacy has actively involved the members of the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association and the PEN American Center in supporting legislation to restore privacy safeguards for bookstore and library records that were eliminated by the USA PATRIOT Act. The newest phase of their efforts includes support of the National Security Letters Reform Act, recently re-introduced by Rep. Jerold Nadler (D-NY) and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI), which currently has 30 co-sponsors in the House and 11 in the Senate.
Editor: Amy Ferrer, Web & Publications Coordinator
Managing Editor: Barbara Haugen, Administrator
Contributing Writers: Shahid Buttar, Incoming Executive Director; Emma Roderick, Grassroots Campaign Coordinator; Bethany Singer-Baefsky, Smith College Intern