A HISTORIC exercise in democracy took place last week when more than 1,200 people gathered outside Faneuil Hall to speak out in defense of the Bill of Rights while US Attorney General John Ashcroft delivered a closed-to-the-public speech to some 150 law enforcement officials who were locked inside the hall. While the meeting went on inside, people who were locked out chanted: "This is what democracy looks like."
Those who gathered outside the hall were ordinary people from across Massachusetts: businesspeople, grandmothers, students, and elected officials. They came from Amnesty International, the Massachusetts Library Association, the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Justice, Centro Presente, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the ACLU, and a range of community groups. Speakers included a member of Congress (Representative Michael Capuano), city councilors, booksellers, advocates, and librarians.
The common theme among the speakers was that the people of this country demand -- and deserve -- a government that is truthful, open, and respects basic liberties.
Behind the guarded doors of Boston's "Cradle of Liberty," Ashcroft delivered the same message he had taken to 17 other American cities: that the powers already bestowed upon him under the Patriot Act have helped keep the country safe and that he needs even more power to do his job.
The next day, President Bush stated that he will be asking Congress to give him three new laws that greatly enlarge law enforcement -- including expansion of the federal death penalty, the right to use subpoenas issued without the approval of a judge, and the right to deny bail to people accused of "terrorism"-related crimes.
Already, the USA Patriot Act expands terrorism laws in a manner that could subject political organizations to surveillance, wiretapping, harassment, and criminal action for political advocacy. It allows law enforcement agencies to conduct secret searches and gives them the power of phone and Internet surveillance and access to highly personal medical, financial, mental health, and student records with minimal judicial oversight. It allows FBI agents to investigate people for criminal matters without probable cause if it is for "intelligence" purposes. It permits noncitizens to be jailed on mere suspicion, possibly for life.
But while Ashcroft was telling Boston police how the government was using its powers under the Patriot Act, he didn't mention a January 2003 report from the General Accounting Office that revealed that three-quarters of the "international terrorism convictions" for 2002 had been wrongly classified as terrorist crimes. They were, instead, routine immigration violations.
Nor did he mention a March 2, 2003, Washington Post report that out of 62 cases of "international terrorism" that New Jersey prosecutors claimed to have handled, all but two involved Middle Eastern men who were accused of paying other people to take their English exams and who were not linked to terrorism in any way.
He may have repeated the claim, first made in a May 13, 2003, Justice Department report to the House and Senate Judiciary Committee, that FBI agents have contacted only 50 libraries nationwide to obtain records of library patrons, and then mostly in response to requests from librarians who saw something suspicious. But in testimony given to the House Subcommittee on the Constitution on May 20, 2003, then-Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh stated that "Most, if not all of these contacts that we have identified were made in the context of a criminal investigation."
In other words, the number "50" referred to criminal -- not national security -- investigations of libraries.
Ashcroft undertook his taxpayer-financed closed-to-the-public "public relations" tour in response to the growing realization among ordinary Americans and members of Congress that this unprecedented attack on our system of checks and balances will not make us more safe but only less free.
Around the country, the USA Patriot Act has become a kitchen table issue. Already, more than 160 towns and cities across America -- including 14 in Massachusetts -- and three states have passed resolutions in support of the Bill of Rights and against the unconstitutional provisions of the USA Patriot Act. Many of these resolutions empower local libraries and businesses to destroy patron records rather than turn them over to government agents and demand that local police officers not spend community resources tracking immigration violations on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security.
When Samuel Adams, James Otis, and Frederick Douglass spoke about freedom in Faneuil Hall, they didn't need to lock the doors to the public. It is ironic that Ashcroft would use the "Cradle of Liberty" to deliver his message that the government wants to expand its power to watch you while reducing your ability to watch your government.
Carol Rose is executive director of the ACLU in Massachusetts.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company