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Civil Liberties Update -- August 8, 2002

Below is a round-up of some of the major civil liberties developments of the summer:

1. Resolutions endorsing civil liberties: Nine cities and towns around the USA (including 4 in Massachusetts -- Amherst, Cambridge, Leverett and Northampton) have now passed resolutions in support of the Bill of Rights. For copies of those resolutions, tips on how to go about passing one in your town, and a list of cities and towns that are considering similar action, check out the excellent website of the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee: www.gjf.org/NBORDC.

2. Anti-terrorism bills in the Massachusetts legislature: I'm happy to report that none of the bills made it into law this past session, as the legislature's attention was taken up by budget matters.

3. Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System): This is the Justice Department's plan to recruit a million letter carriers, truckers, utility workers and others whose jobs give them access to private homes and train them to look for "suspicious and potentially-terrorist-related activity." Operation TIPS would provide a "formal way to report" that activity "through a single and coordinated toll-free number." The Operation was supposed to get underway this month.

David Lindorff, the author of an article in the on-line magazine Salon, signed up for the TIPS program, heard nothing more about it, and then called the Justice Department which gave him a phone number they said was set up by the FBI. When he called that number he was connected to Fox TV's "America's Most Wanted." He was told by Fox television, "We've been asked to take the FBI's TIPS call for them."(See the Salon article at www.salon.com/news/feature/2002/08/06/tips).

House Majority Leader Richard Armey dealt TIPS a blow in July when he opposed its being included in the legislation setting up the new Homeland Security Department. But in case it is down but not out, you might want to check out "TIPSWATCH" on the ACLU website (www.aclu.org). The site includes a downloadable "Special Request to my Utility Company" forms which you can mail in with your next utility payment. The forms ask your company to pledge not to participate in the TIPS program. The site also contains a printable door-hanger saying "This Home's Privacy is Protected by the ACLU."

4. Court decisions. Here the news is both positive and disappointing. On August 2 district court judge Gladys Kessler ordered the Justice Department to release the names of the more than 1,000 people detained following September 11th. She declared that "the first priority of the judicial branch must be to ensure that our government always operates within the statutory and constitutional constraints which distinguish a democracy from a dictatorship," and the information would help verify if the government was" operating within the bounds of the law."

She said most of the names should be released within 14 days. A New York Times editorial of August 6th urged the government to comply with her ruling. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is presently hearing a government challenge to a lower court ruling that secret hearings are unnecessary and unconstitutional.

In Norfolk, Virginia, district court judge Robert Doumar is considering whether the government can hold indefinitely an American citizen, Yaser Hamdi, as an "enemy combatant" without charging him or giving him access to a lawyer. Twice he has ordered the government to allow a lawyer to visit Hamdi, and twice the government blocked his order. The government has also refused to provide the judge with documents supporting its case that Hamdi is an "enemy combatant," arguing that the judicial branch has no business interfering in the conduct of war.

A federal judge has dismissed habeas corpus lawsuits brought by two groups of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, saying that the US courts had no jurisdiction outside the sovereign territory of the US.

5. Ashcroft asked for information on workings of USA PATRIOT Act. On June13, 2002 F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. and John Conyers, Jr. (the chair andranking member of the House Committee on the Judiciary) sent a letter to JohnAshcroft consisting of 50 detailed questions about how the USA PATRIOT Actwas being implemented. Stating that this request for information would be followed by a hearing "to allow further public discussion of these and other issues relating to the Department of Justice's activity in investigating terrorists or potential terrorist attacks," they asked him to respond by July 9th (to date, their letter is unanswered).The letter can be read at www.house.gov/judiciary/ashcroft061302.htm.

6. Call to review Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. With the new military Northern Command due to begin operations on October 1 under its commander General Ralph Eberhart, President Bush has requested a review of the 1878 Act that bars the military from engaging in law enforcement activities such as policing. Over the years exceptions have been made to the Posse Comitatus Act, as the army has participated in quelling domestic insurrections, drug interdiction, the protection of national parks, and the provision of training and equipment. General Eberhart was quoted in the July 21st New York Times as saying that "my view has been that Posse Comitatus will constantly be under review as we mature this command, as we do our exercises, as we interact with FEMA, FBI and those lead foreign agencies out there."

Nancy Murray Director, Bill of Rights Education Project ACLU of Massachusetts (617) 482-3170 x 314