A Sneak Attack on Liberty

The Denver Post
February 20, 2003


A secret proposal to give the U.S. attorney general sweeping, arbitrary powers in the name of national security while eroding constitutional safeguards deserves to stopped dead in its tracks.

Fortunately for the country, a copy of the so-called Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 was leaked to the Center for Public Integrity, which made public this shameful sneak attack on American liberties.

The confidential document proposes a variety of changes in federal law that arguably could render the president the second most powerful person in American government - after the attorney general.

The bill would give the AG wide latitude to detain people in secret. (We aren't so arrogant as to believe that abuses like thousands of 'disappeared' persons in Latin America can't happen here.)

The act would give U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft carte blanche to tap phones without court oversight for up to 15 days during a time of 'emergency.'

The feds also would get secret access to people's credit and financial records and other information that could be shared with other law-enforcement agencies.

Also, habeas corpus would be suspended in antiterrorism cases, but the Catch-22 of this hideous stew is that Ashcroft would decide who's a terrorist, domestic or foreign. The attorney general also would be allowed to deport anybody he considers a threat and to strip Americans of citizenship.

The act would make the definitions of what constitutes terrorist activity so vague that unsuspecting people who innocently contribute money to the wrong group could find themselves ensnared in Kafka-esque legal nightmares.

True, the proposal contains a few practical changes in the law, such as lengthening supervised release for convicted terrorists, allowing pilots' licenses to be suspended for national security reasons, making money- laundering more difficult for terrorists, or clarifying the legal definition of conveyances in interstate or foreign commerce.

There's a certain irony that such Draconian measures have been proposed by an administration that was strongly supported by conservative voters who by nature are leery of putting too much power in the hands of the federal government.

From our perspective, the Domestic Security Enhancement Act poses a serious threat to the constitutional separation of powers by usurping judicial oversight and giving too much unbridled authority to the office of the attorney general.

Oliver Cromwell was one Lord Protector too many for the English- speaking world and its precepts of liberty. We do not need another.

Copyright 2003 The Denver Post Corporation

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