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Washington Legislative Director, Caroline Fredrickson's Remarks Regarding the ACLU's Priorities for the 110th Congress

Document Date: January 9, 2007
Affiliate: ACLU of the District of Columbia

As Anthony alluded earlier we have a gift that keeps on giving – the revelation of new privacy abuse by the Bush administration. He’s issued a signing statement asserting the government’s power to open first class mail without a warrant. America seems to have been given quite a few of these “gifts” since we learned of the Government’s illegal wiretapping scheme via the New York Times just over one year ago. Throughout the year these unsolicited “gifts” have begun to pile up in the darkest corners of America’s house – like dust and dirt. Our house needs a thorough cleaning, so let’s open up the curtains, let the sun shine in, roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Congress is back to work and also appears ready to clean house. They’ve initiated a fresh start by addressing ethics rules, re-instituting federal deficit controls and setting new policy in House proceedings.

We have some advice to give Congress on how to manage the to-do list for restoring our rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.

We urge Congress to take the following action now to give us back our freedom: amend the Military Commissions Act to restore habeas corpus; stop warrantless NSA surveillance; protect our privacy; end torture and abuse; and prohibit the automatic application of the state secrets privilege and sensitive security information designation by the administration.

Amend MCA and restore habeas corpus

It is hard to believe this happened in America, but last October the president and the Congress enacted the Military Commissions Act of 2006 – which gives any President the power to decide who is and who is not an enemy of our country, and to imprison certain people indefinitely without charging them with a crime.

Even more startling is the fact that the new law eliminates fundamental due process as protected by the Constitutional right of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is the right to question your confinement and is what separates America from other countries. To do away with this core American value makes us more like those we are fighting against.

The only thing scarier than a government that would take away our basic freedoms is a Congress and a people that would let it happen. It is time for Congress to restore due process, defend the Constitution, and protect American values. Congress must correct the October mistake.

Stop NSA warrantless wiretapping

Whatever inherent powers the president might have under Article II of the Constitution, they do not include the power to conduct a warrantless, indefinite and unlimited domestic surveillance campaign that is expressly prohibited by law. America must learn the scope of the NSA warrantless wiretapping program – who has been spied on – what has been done with the information – and who authorized it.

Protect Privacy

The Patriot Act, national security letters, 215 orders, and sneak and peek warrants expose our medical, financial and private records to unwarranted scrutiny and potential identity theft. It is perhaps the greatest assault on the privacy of ordinary Americans.

With several provisions of the Patriot Act set to expire again in 2009, the 110th Congress must use this time to make meaningful changes to bring this law in line with the Constitution.

Stop torture and abuse

The government continues to claim that it has the power to designate who is an “enemy combatant” and to detain them indefinitely without charge. Investigations into detention centers have revealed severe human rights abuses and violations of international law and the Geneva Conventions. And the practice of rendition – secretly kidnapping people and moving them to foreign countries where they are tortured and abused – is slowly being revealed through first-hand accounts told by innocent victims. Government-sponsored torture is a shameful chapter in American history and it must stop.

Congress should appoint a special counsel or oversight committee to determine where the illegal policies originated in the chain-of-command and seek appropriate disciplinary action.

Curb state secrets privilege and Sensitive Security Information

The Bush administration avoids any scrutiny of its illegal behavior by hiding behind a veil of secrecy. The government has used a variety of tactics to deny court review of key facts that could reveal unconstitutional and illegal actions by federal officials.

The Bush administration has been one of the most secretive in our history. The Freedom of Information Act has been weakened through willful noncompliance, the administration has led a campaign of reclassification and increased secrecy — including the expansion of a catch-all category of “sensitive but unclassified” — and has made sweeping claims of “state secrets” to stymie judicial review of its policies that erode civil liberties. And to thwart the media’s role in exposing questionable and illegal conduct, the administration wants to prosecute journalists under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Congress must restore greater transparency by limiting the state secrets doctrine and the use of SSI designation for unclassified material. Likewise, Congress must also strengthen FOIA and protect whistleblowers.

Our nation’s Congress should stop sweeping dust under the rug and clean up the House and the Senate. Doing so will bring us closer towards realizing the dreams of freedom and equality envisioned in our Constitution.

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