ACLU president warns of eroding freedoms from the War on Terror

The USA Patriot Act was passed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at a time when the nation was traumatized and feeling vulnerable. The new law significantly reduced the restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ ability to gather intelligence through the search of phone, email, financial and library records, all in the name of protecting us.

More than a decade later, are we any safer?

Susan Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, contends that sacrifices to individual privacy have outstripped the benefits of enhanced surveillance. Herman has written a book, “Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy,” that coincides with the tenth anniversary of passage of the Patriot Act and warns of government encroachment on basic freedoms.

“We are not in a police state, but we’ve taken the first steps on the road,” Herman told the audience at an Oct. 25 lecture in the Higgins Lounge at Dana Commons. She spoke as part of the Clark University Difficult Dialogues fall symposium, “The End of Things.”

Herman said the public’s fear, combined with the government’s zealous response to the War on Terror, have resulted in a steady erosion of personal liberties. She cited the use of National Security Letters, which give the government a wide berth to investigate and prosecute suspects, and The Library Provision, which she said bypasses the First and Fourth amendments, respectively freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, to allow the government to examine what library patrons are reading.

National Security Letters are especially pernicious, she said, because they not only compel an organization to surrender private information, but also impose a gag order on individuals who are being investigated. She noted that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft accused those who disagree with such government measures as “colluding with terrorists.”

“In my view, dissent is patriotic,” she said.

In her talk, Herman cited a number of cases that illustrate government overreaching:

  • Following 9/11, law enforcement agencies theorized that money for Al Qaida was being channeled through mosques in Brooklyn and began closing down Muslim charities. It turned out most of the funding was coming from Saudi Arabia. “This fueled tremendous anger in the Arab world and many Muslims became alienated by the FBI,” Herman said.
  • Sami al-Hussayen, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University of Idaho, spent 17 months in solitary confinement after the FBI theorized — wrongly, it turned out — that his contributions to Muslim charities were leading to the creation of “sleeper cells” in Idaho. Despite his acquittal, al-Hussayen, his wife and three children were deported to Saudi Arabia.
  • An Internet service provider named Nick Merrill sued the U.S. government over the validity of the National Security Letter he received regarding traffic on some websites. Six years later, because of the proscriptions in the NSL, he is still prohibited from even acknowledging that he’s involved in the litigation (an enterprising newspaper reporter uncovered the lawsuit).
  • Roya Rahmani was granted political asylum in the U.S. after she’d been imprisoned and tortured for supporting a pro-democracy group that opposed the Shah of Iran. Twenty months later she was arrested when the FBI wrongly determined that same group was pro-terrorist.
  • According to Herman, AT&T receives 700 requests a day from the government for phone records, and has 100 full-time employees “whose job it is to give your information to the government.” Sprint has 200 employees meeting the government’s 1,500 daily requests, she said. The Washington Post, she noted, has written that the government is “drowning in data” and The New York Times calculated that in the last decade $690 billion has been spent on national security, not including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Herman said government secrecy surrounding the national surveillance apparatus is a significant problem, and one that has crossed over from the Bush to the Obama administration. “Barack Obama believes it’s okay because he’s well-intentioned,” she said.

In her book, Herman says the War on Terror has been deemed such an exceptional threat that the strategies for combating it “have to remain so secret so we just have to trust the president, who is best able to operate in secrecy, to decide what rights we need to give up. This fear-inflected frame is the very antithesis of constitutional democracy.”

Simply put, Herman told the Clark audience, “We have a lot less privacy, and the government has a lot more power.”

Tonight, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m., Difficult Dialogues presents Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for The New Yorker, and author and scientist Susan Moser present “Getting Real in the Time of the Anthropocene.” Their talk focuses on issues of climate change and where we are headed in an era in which the state of the planet is being shaped by the actions of humankind.