New Challenges to Civil Liberties

James Zogby’s Column

Civil liberties in the U.S. took a triple hit last week.

The week began with the U.S. Department of Justice announcing that it planned to use secret evidence in its case against a Muslim charity whose funds the government has frozen since December 2001.  Mid-week, Attorney General John Ashcroft made the surprise announcement that he has ordered law enforcement officials to question another 3,000 recent immigrant Arabs or Muslims.  The week closed out with raids on the offices and homes of individuals related to 14 U.S. Muslim entities.  The raids were conducted by an inter-agency government task force headed by the U.S. Treasury Department.

While each of these events were troublesome on their own, taken together they define the dangerous challenges to civil liberties in the U.S. today.

Secret evidence has been a problem since the Congress passed the 1996 anti-terrorism bill.  That legislation, however, only provided for secret evidence to be used in deportation cases of non-citizens.  Arab American and civil liberties organizations fought this practice arguing that an accused person’s constitutional right to see the evidence being used against him applies to citizens and non-citizens alike.

While, at one point in the 1990’s, the government held 24 individuals on secret evidence, by the end of the Clinton Administration the collective efforts of Arab Americans and civil rights organizations had succeeded in winning the freedom of all the detained Arabs and Muslims.

Our hopes that this odious practice would be ended were raised during the 2000 Presidential election when both candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore committed themselves to ending the use of secret evidence.  Even after his election, President Bush maintained his resolve on this matter.

And so it has been a great disappointment to see that the Bush Administration has not only re-instituted the use of secret evidence in deportation cases, but is now using secret evidence in making its case against U.S.-based Muslim charities.  As the lawyer representing the charity in question argued last week, “How are we to defend ourselves when we don’t know the charges against us and don’t know what those charges are based on?”

In announcing his decision to order the questioning of 3,000 more young Arab or Muslim immigrant males, Attorney General John Ashcroft appeared unconcerned about the impact this would have on these affected communities.  In his announcement to the assembled press corps, Mr. Ashcroft maintained that since the first round of such interviews had been a success, he was encouraged to proceed with this second round.  He claimed that the first set of 5,000 interviews: “generated a significant number of leads…into the September 11 attacks”; “fostered new trust between law enforcement” and the Arab and Muslim communities; and helped to “disrupt potential terrorist activities”.

In response Arab American leaders were quick to point out that the Attorney General was wrong on all counts.  Even the Department of Justice’s own report on the first round of interviews makes it clear that no useful information was derived from them.  Comments from Arab and Muslim community leaders establish that the highly publicized interviews created tension between the communities and law enforcement.  And the Attorney General’s third claim, the most dangerous of them all, appears to suggest that because of the interviews, terrorists were deterred–thereby casting a pall of guilt over the entire group of interviewees. 

The Attorney General’s observations have also been challenged by both federal and local law enforcement officials.  These officials were also quite unhappy with both the first round and the announced second round of interviews precisely because they view these efforts as an inefficient and ineffective way of conducting the investigation, and because they worry about the strain these interviews have placed on the relationship between law enforcement and the Arab and Muslim communities.

The raids Treasury Department officials made on the mostly Northern Virginia-based offices and residences of individuals related to 14 American Muslim entities have left that community in shock.  The raids were a surprise.  They were conducted with significant and unnecessary force.  Many of the individuals affected are prominent members of the local community.  And finally, no justification was given to those who were raided since the raids were based on “secret evidence”.

It is important to note that none of the raided offices were closed, no one was arrested or charged with any crime.  And no accounts were closed or frozen.

All of which has created even greater concern.  Homes were raided at gunpoint, residents were handcuffed during the raids, boxes of materials were taken by the raiders, some property was destroyed-and yet because the affidavits which were used to justify these raids are “secret and sealed”, the victims have no idea why they were violated, what was taken and what the raiders were looking to find.

These new challenges all coming in the course of one week have taken a toll on our community.  We are determined to fight back and win.  Our concern with each of these challenges has already generated significant press coverage and won allies to our side.  We have no doubt that this will be a long-term struggle, but we are resolved to stay the course.  It is not only our rights, but the very integrity of the U.S. Constitution that is at stake.  It is a fight we, and all Americans, cannot afford to lose.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.