Naked City

PATRIOT II: Be Very Afraid

On Feb. 7 the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity made public a draft of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, written by the Dept. of Justice as a follow-up to 2001's USA PATRIOT Act. The new legislation would enhance the government's power to track information and people, restrict access to open records and restrain the judiciary -- a frightening enlargement of the PATRIOT Act's presumptive assault on civil liberties.

Although CPI also turned up a document showing the DSEA draft had already been sent to Vice-President Dick Cheney and House Speaker Dennis Hastert for review, DOJ Public Affairs Director Barbara Comstock backed away from that fact. The department's "staff has not presented any final proposals to either the attorney general or the White House," she said. "It would be premature to speculate on any future decisions, particularly ideas or proposals that are still being discussed at staff levels." Still, Comstock also sought to reassure the public that "the department's deliberations are always undertaken with the strongest commitment to our Constitution and civil liberties." That sounds great -- at least until you've read the proposed legislation.

Among the highlights: a broadening of wiretapping and electronic surveillance; creating a DNA database that would provide the feds with the power to take samples and maintain records on "suspected terrorists and other sources" and then use those samples to "detect, investigate, prosecute, or prevent terrorist activities or other unlawful activities"; and knocking away barriers -- including federal consent decrees -- that prevent local law enforcement agencies from spying on private groups or individuals. Conversely, the legislation proposes to restrict citizen access to government records. For example, the legislation would restrict public access to "worst case scenario" reports filed with the EPA under the Clean Air Act by companies and industries using dangerous chemicals. The feds say this info could provide a "roadmap" for terrorists.

The DOJ is seeking to do away with its responsibility to explain why certain information is so confidential that it must be kept out of open court proceedings. Currently, if federal prosecutors want to keep information confidential for an "in camera" inspection by a judge, they actually have to explain why in court. To the DOJ this is just too much: "As a result, the government is forced to divert valuable resources to litigating this question," a DOJ summary of the proposed act laments. Instead the DOJ is seeking to force judges to keep info out of court first, and only later decide if this action was in fact necessary.

For the full draft of the proposed legislation along with the DOJ summary and analysis, go to www.publicintegrity.org.

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