September 12, 2003

Commentary:

Two Years Later: As Nation Observes 2nd Anniversary of 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, The ACLU Asks Whether We Are Any Safer or Just Less Free

Statement of Anthony Romero
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union

NEW YORK - As the nation commemorates the second anniversary of the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks, the American Civil Liberties Union joins with hundreds of thousands of concerned Americans across the country in asking our elected and appointed officials to mark this solemn day with a strong commitment to making the United States both safe and free.

Unfortunately, however, both President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft seem unwilling to listen to an American public that is increasingly concerned about the USA PATRIOT Act and other powers the government grabbed for itself after the terrorist attacks. To date, more than 160 communities - including three state legislatures - have gone on record in opposition to the PATRIOT Act, a sweeping collection of new law enforcement powers adopted with virtually no debate in the days after the 9/11 attacks. And more than 300 members of the House of Representatives - Republicans, Democrats and independents, conservatives, moderates and liberals - voted recently to forbid the Department of Justice from using the PATRIOT Act’s so-called sneak and peek warrants that allow the government to break into homes, collect evidence and provide no notice for days, weeks or months that it has done so.

But instead of engaging this increasingly worried public, Attorney General Ashcroft has marked the anniversary with a road show in which he is traveling the country and speaking only to closed audiences of law enforcement officers. Americans concerned about the PATRIOT Act are left on sidewalks holding protest signs while the Attorney General sweeps into auditoriums through back entrances and gives canned speeches designed for local television cameras.

During his travels, Attorney General Ashcroft ducks opportunities to engage the public and answer important questions about the government’s strategy to fight terrorism. He never explains why, for example, all the PATRIOT Act powers are necessary even though many of the high-level commissions that examined the government’s actions prior to September 11, 2001 concluded that not all of those powers were needed to combat the threat of terrorism. He does not explain why the Bush Administration needed to bully Congress into accepting radical changes in the law that apply not only to fighting terrorists but also to investigating garden-variety crimes. He does not explain why the government is treating average Americans like suspects and why it needs the power to monitor the websites and library books read by law-abiding Americans.

Indeed, two years after the terrorist attacks, much remains shrouded in secrecy and mystery. But what is unmistakably clear is that large segments of the American public are not prepared to sit back and accept the Bush Administration’s “trust us, we’re the government” assurances. More and more people agree with Ted Koppel, who ended a recent Nightline examination of the PATRIOT Act by saying: “The men who drafted our Constitution, who framed our civil rights and protected our various freedoms under the law would, I suspect, retch at some of the bone-headed, self-serving misinterpretations of their intentions that are so often used these days to undermine the very freedoms they pretend to safeguard.”

We respectfully ask Congress to honor the memory of the patriots who died on September 11, 2001 by exercising strong oversight of the PATRIOT Act and other government policies and initiatives that fail to make us safer and only make us less free.

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