“The American people understand that new threats require flexible responses to keep them safe. They also insist that our responses to threats respect the constitution and do not violate the basic tenets of our democracy,” Obama’s email said. Several people who have written to Obama have posted his response on various blogs, including “Justin” who’s personal blog was picked up on diggs.com.
“I wrote Senator Obama (my senator from Illinois) about this act, which is now in a committee of his (the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs). I asked that he read the bill (not to insult his intelligence, but after the Patriot Act it appears this is a necessary request for most senators), and that he recognize the dire consequences that could result from its vague language,” Justin wrote Dec. 6 below the post of Obama’s email. “He’s quite eloquent, you’ve got to give him that. This act ‘includes provisions prohibiting the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts from violating civil rights and civil liberties of U.S. citizens.’ Didn’t we used to have something like that? What was it called? Oh right… The Constitution.”
The House version of the bill, H.R. 1955, passed Oct. 23 by a vote of 404-6 under the “suspension of the rules,” a provision that is available to quickly pass bills considered “non-controversial.”
Many scholars, historians and civil liberties experts say they fear that the proposed bill will set the stage for future criminal legislation that be used against U.S.-based groups engaged in legal but unpopular political activism, ranging from political Islamists to animal-rights and environmental campaigners to radical right-wing organizations.
“This bill fits the pattern we are seeing coming out of Congress – both Republican and Democratic – of a continued campaign of fear, which gets into heads of Americans that we now need to start criminalizing ideology,” said Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center. He said he is very concerned about the bill’s vague definitions of “violent radicalization,” “homegrown terrorism,” and the terms within the definitions including “extremist belief system,” “violence” and “force.”
Jules Boykoff, an assistant professor of politics and government at Pacific University and author of Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, told The Indypendent said he is concerned about how the government is broadening the definition of terrorism.
“Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act is a law that created a new brand of terrorists, the ‘domestic terrorist.’ Under this definition, the civil rights work Martin Luther King, Jr. did could have been construed as an act of ‘domestic terrorism,” Boykoff said.
In a Nov. 30 Common Dreams article, ‘Homegrown’ Suppression of Dissent,’ Boykoff provided a historical-based critique of who could be included under the umbrella definition of terrorism. “Even a cursory look backward through U.S. history reveals heroic figures who could be dubbed ‘violent radicals’ or ‘homegrown terrorists’ under the proposed bill, from U.S. revolutionaries like Sam Adams to gun-toting slavery abolitionists like John Brown to militant civil-rights organizers like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Kamau Franklin, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), also expressed concern that H.R. 1955/S. 1959 will foster a legislative momentum on criminalizing a broad range of dissident voices. “The Commission’s broad mandate can lead to the ability to turn civil disobedience, a form of protest that is centuries old, into a terrorist act,” he said. “My biggest fear is that they [the commission] will call for some new criminal penalties and federal crimes,” says Franklin. “Activists are nervous about how the broad definitions could be used for criminalizing civil disobedience and squashing the momentum of the left.”
“It’s possible that someone who would have been charged with disorderly conduct or obstruction of governmental administration may soon be charged with a federal terrorist statute,” Franklin said.
To many, the similarities between COINTELPRO and the bill are unsettling. The proposed legislation calls for the National Commission to “examine and report upon the facts and causes of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism and ideologically based violence in the United States” in order to develop policy for “prevention, disruption and mitigation.” This investigation is needed, according to stated Congressional findings, due to possible threats to national security.
The secret program continued until it was discovered COINTELPRO was investigated by a U.S. Senate select committee on intelligence activities (commonly known as the Church Committee) which convened in 1975. The Church Committee found that from 1956 to 1971, “the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence.”