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December 22, 2003

Homeland Security?

A trade unionist ponders the Patriot Act and our ever-expanding “Homeland Security” mania

By Chris Townsend

In the wake of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration pushed the so-called “Patriot Act” through Congress in near-record legislative time. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the most draconian law enforcement legislation since the 1950's on October 25, 2001, by a sweeping 357-66 avalanche. Despite protests by a handful of Democrats - who had not even had time to read the bill - the 3:45 a.m. vote was a foregone conclusion. Never mind the disturbing fact that most of the bill text had obviously been written well before the September 11th tragedy; the stampede to pass this “anti-terrorist” bill was not to be stopped. The Senate followed suit the next day, voting by a 98-1 landslide to pass the Patriot Act, with the lone dissenting vote being cast by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold. By late 2002 the curiously labeled “Homeland Security” bill was also rushed through Congress. The Senate voted 90-9, and the House followed suit with a 299-121 margin to erect the new and massive security bureaucracy.

Like it or not, our national obsession with security and “terrorism” are now a part of our daily routines. But like me, not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of living in our new security-crazed world. A recent national “Grassroots America Defends the Bill of Rights” Conference convened in Washington, D.C., in mid-October, bringing together several hundred skeptics and opponents of the Patriot Act, in particular. Well represented were the numerous national legal organizations in defense of civil liberties such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, www.aclu.org), as well as the newer Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC, www.bordc.org) and the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom (NCPPF, www.ncppf.org) Also attending from 25 states were representatives of church-based organizations, students, immigrants, local activists, and even a sprinkling of conservative organizations and individuals who share concern about the Patriot Act and the deteriorating civil liberties environment.

Conference participants spent two days sharing information on the Patriot Act and its implementation, as well as taking stock of the growing movement in opposition to the legislation. Dozens of activists laboring in local movements to pass resolutions at the state, city, and county level against the Patriot Act reported on the more than 200 different versions passed - just so far. The state legislatures of Alaska, Hawaii, and Vermont, have passed resolutions in opposition to the Act. The Conference was an all-round upbeat affair with only one notable exception: excepting myself and just one or two others, organized labor was nowhere to be found.

Good News on the Local Front

Quite possibly the most remarkable aspect of the entire Patriot Act saga is the growing grassroots movement to expose and repeal it. Untold thousands of ordinary people and lawmakers have passed more than 200 state, county, city, and municipal ordinances and resolutions that range from calling for repeal of the Patriot Act, to instructing local public employees and law enforcement not to cooperate with federal enforcement of the Act, to declaring “civil liberties safe zones.” By late 2003, more than 25 million people live in one or another of these “civil liberties safe zones”, which range over 31 states.

Several bills are also now before congress to limit Patriot Act excesses.

Where Is the Labor Movement?

I guess I wasn’t surprised that I was one of the few labor representatives at the recent Conference. The civil liberties question is not a simple or easy question for our movement to face. Few among us remember that many unions - mine in included - were victimized ruthlessly during the 1950's. More than a dozen national unions were completely destroyed., and entire component parts of others were smashed and throttled. The federal government was hell-bent on using both legal and illegal tactics to crush the militant wing of the labor movement, extinguish political dissent, and do the bidding of big business to boot. Labor has yet to come to terms with the destruction visited on our movement during the notorious McCarthy period. Tens of thousands of good trade unionists were fired and victimized during that dirty decade, and for the most part the labor movement failed to recognize the extent of the danger until it was too late.

The broad historical record is also clear; our government has routinely violated the rights of working people under the guise of “national security.” In recent decades federal attacks on working people included the now exposed and discredited COINTELPRO, COMINFIL, and Operation CHAOS outrages. Every major city in the U.S. maintained a fully-staffed “Red Squad” or Labor Squad”, with the sole mission of spying-on, disrupting, and denying the lawful rights of labor unions and dissidents. These squads still exist in many places, but merely re-labeled. Does anyone care to remember that the same federal government that now honors slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with a national Holiday was the same Dr. King who was spied-on, hounded and harassed by our federal government on the basis that he was a “security threat?” Today, in the aftermath of the September 11th outrage, organized labor is once again conflicted. The responses from the labor movement to the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, and the related assaults on the rights of working people have been few and far between, at least so far. Could it be that what we forget we are doomed to repeat?

Just What Is the Patriot Act?

The Patriot Act is the short-hand name for the “Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.” The rather modest looking 342 page legislation is actually a drawing together of laws already on the books, combined with new powers and regulations. It provides sweeping new powers to the 18 different federal law enforcement agencies and the 33 federal intelligence agencies that already exist. In brief, the Patriot Act allows the federal government to:

  • Burglarize your home without a warrant, using a so-called “sneak and peak” search; as of July this year the government had admitted to 47 of these break-ins.
  • Tap and record your telephone calls using “roving” wiretaps without a warrant.
  • Obtain access to, and permit the gathering of educational, medical, library, business, travel, sales and other personal information without your consent or knowledge.
  • Designate you or your organization as a “domestic terrorist” without due process.
  • Monitor and record your internet activities and e-mail traffic without your knowledge.
  • Confiscate your property and assets without due process.
  • Conduct secret investigations and share that information with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies without your knowledge or permission.
  • Arrest and detain immigrants indefinitely and in secret.
  • Utilize federal agents instead of federal judges to make decisions on who is to be monitored, and to what extent.
  • Permit the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other federal intelligence agencies to conduct activities inside the United States, with no oversight.

What Is the “Patriot Act” Track Record?

So far - the Patriot Act has been used to round-up and detain several thousand immigrants, primarily from the Middle East. A handful of prosecutions have been initiated against several of these individuals. A tiny handful of prosecutions have returned dubious convictions, with only a few more in the pipeline. A number of businesses and charities have also been seized under the pretext that they were “funding terrorism.” But the vast majority of Patriot Act activities remain unknown, due to the very nature of the legislation. It is impossible to determine just exactly who is being watched and monitored. The expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in precious law enforcement dollars has led to a tiny number of prosecutions, while the corporate news media ignores this fact and instead trumpets the latest “terror alert” rumor emanating from Attorney General John Ashcroft.

While the “cost effectiveness” of the Patriot Act is certainly in question, there is no question that the Bush Administration has used the Patriot Act and the terror issue to berate and stifle domestic political opposition to the President and his many other controversial acts and positions. The Homeland Security mania fed the propaganda drive to initiate the war against Iraq, with grease supplied by the Patriot Act and its constant theme of an indefinite “war on terrorism.” A pervasive security regimen has been forced on the nation, with little thought to the costs, sustainability, or even the need. A country already living behind fences, behind lock-and-key, and on camera has just seen the level of “security” imposed on the population expanded tenfold. A new frenzy of searches and surveillance have swept our country, almost without opposition. On a daily basis we are now watched on camera, searched, and questioned. The workplace, schools, and public events have been locked-down and put under watchful eye to a greater degree than ever before. “May I search your bag?” is no longer limited to combating shoplifters; it’s a new staple of the Homeland Security state-of-mind.


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The Homeland Security Scare and the Labor Movement

I believe that most union members and workers are - for the most part - unaware of the Patriot Act, its content, or its dangers. If you disagree, go to work and ask five of your co-workers. It is, after all, targeted against “terrorism” and “terrorists”, so who could be against it? The rank-and-file see a few immigrant “terror suspects” being arrested on television, or they might see Attorney General Ashcroft announcing that some new “threat” to our nation has been discovered or is on-the-loose. At the airport, we are all subjected to the new regimen of security checks and searches, and that’s the part of the Homeland Security program that everyone knows about or has experienced. And let’s remember that the attacks of September 11th were not our imagination; therefore the average union member or reasonable person is apt to conclude that since we have experienced no new terror attacks, something must be working right when it comes to our nation’s anti-terror efforts.

Given what we know about the history of repressive legislation being used against organized and unorganized labor alike here in the United States, where do we begin the discussion? For starters, let’s talk about how the entire Homeland Security “terror scare” played-out over the media day after day is being used to condition working people and our unions to the new “security” and “anti-terror” environment.. You might begin by reviewing the earlier list of Patriot Act content at your next local union, church, student, or community meeting, just so folks get the flavor of the new powers granted to our federal government. You might also explain that the Bush Administration has already launched a full-blown war on working people and our unions. Here’s just a sample:

  • Besides the Patriot Act, the Bush Administration “Homeland Security” legislation allowed - among other things - the cancellation of trade union rights for tens of thousands of federal workers and members of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE.) Bush, Ashcroft, and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge make no bones about equating membership in a union with being a “security threat.” And even for those union members in agencies that still tolerate union organization, what message is sent to the rank-and-file? What about the hundreds of thousands of union members and workers in the public and private sector who in their daily duties might perform some security related function - are we so naive to think that the chilling effect of this Bush edict has not been felt all the way along ?
  • In the negotiations earlier this year between the west coast longshore companies and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the Bush Administration brazenly interfered and took sides with management. The ILWU rank-and-file stood up to this disgraceful attempt to paint their strike threat as some sort of threat to “national security” and settled a decent contract in the end. But the message was clear; Bush, Ashcroft, and Ridge were more than willing to threaten and try to intimidate working people on behalf of the bosses. The ILWU membership fought back and won; their own history as a union is chock-full of government and employer attempts to try to undermine and destroy their hard-won trade union rights and gains. But as for waterfront cargo security, don’t even bother to ask. The U.S. government inspects less than 1% of the cargo entering the United States. It’s easier to attack the ILWU membership than it is to inspect and possibly slow down the flow of containers laden with goods for your local Wal-Mart!
  • Every immigrant living and working here in the United States is now perfectly aware that the government has snatched-up several thousand alleged “terror suspects” and are still holding many of them in secret. Will they ever be put on trial or allowed legal counsel? Will they be sent to the legal black hole of the Guantánamo Bay prison? Already having had ample experience with a government that happily works with employers to use the Social Security Administration and the Immigration authorities to bust union organizing drives and intimidate immigrants, are we so naive to think that the “terror” crackdown has not had an effect here? If you were an immigrant laboring in a sweatshop would you pick this as the time to join a union and fight the boss?
  • Several hundred people - at least - have been banned from boarding commercial airplanes. On what basis does our federal government bar someone from flying? On what basis do they add names to this ‘no-fly” list? And where does someone go to clear their name, let alone discover what alleged crimes or behaviors have led to their designation as a “security risk” while on an airplane?
  • Every immigrant living and working here in the United States is now perfectly aware that the government has snatched-up several thousand alleged “terror suspects” and are still holding many of them in secret. Will they ever be put on trial or allowed legal counsel? Will they be sent to the legal black hole of the Guantánamo Bay prison? Already having had ample experience with a government that happily works with employers to use the Social Security Administration and the Immigration authorities to bust union organizing drives and intimidate immigrants, are we so naive to think that the “terror” crackdown has not had an effect here? If you were an immigrant laboring in a sweatshop would you pick this as the time to join a union and fight the boss?
  • Several hundred people - at least - have been banned from boarding commercial airplanes. On what basis does our federal government bar someone from flying? On what basis do they add names to this ‘no-fly” list? And where does someone go to clear their name, let alone discover what alleged crimes or behaviors have led to their designation as a “security risk” while on an airplane?
  • If your union reaches out to workers and unions around the world in acts of solidarity, what are you going to do when the federal government designates your donation as “funding terrorism”? It’s not as far fetched as it sounds. Once that union in some far off land fights back against their repressive government or corporation - and they are placed on John Ashcroft’s Justice Department list of “terrorist” groups - your solidarity efforts are now illegal and subject to prosecution!
  • A number of companies are actively working with different federal agencies to develop databases and computer programs to cull-through the vast network of online information to assemble security profiles on everyone living in the United States. The “Total Information Awareness” scheme aims to gather just about every stitch of information available about your life, work, health, finances, opinions, and preferences. Although Congress has forced Bush to shut down several parts of this outlandish Big Brother undertaking, it is apparent that the project is still moving ahead under new names in different federal and Pentagon departments. What is this information to be used for, and who will have access to it? If you pay union dues will this be part of your profile? Based on what we know so far, the answer is probably yes!
  • Recently, in California, a local police agent deputized under the federal “Joint Terrorism Task Force” was exposed as having infiltrated a church peace committee. His status as a federal informer was exposed after he was killed in a traffic accident and his obituary listed a different name than what church members had known him by. Local law enforcement confirmed that he was in fact a police spy. On what basis? Looking for what? Organized labor has long been victimized by these sorts of stool pigeons and provocateurs.
  • When the City of Arcata, California, recently passed an ordinance joining the movement in defense of our civil liberties, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) dispatched two agents to visit City Hall and obtain a copy of the proposed ordinance. On what basis does our FBI monitor the actions of an elected City Council? How does this strengthen “Homeland Security”?
  • In South Carolina, a demonstrator peacefully protesting a visit of President Bush was arrested for “threatening the President” because he refused to move to a “free speech zone” designated by the Secret Service a mile and a half away! Who gave the Secret Service the right to designate these “No Free Speech Zones?” Bush picketer Brett Bursey now faces these trumped-up charges that, if convicted, would send him to jail for as long as six months and fine him $5,000!
  • Members of my union in Milwaukee, Wisconsin reported that the city police have increased their videotaping of all public union demonstrating and picketing since September 11th, an experience shared by many others around the country. On what basis do the police feel obligated to monitor perfectly peaceful public expressions of our civil liberties?
  • The FBI recently admitted that it has been conducting routine surveillance of “anti-war” demonstrations, and then sharing this information with local law enforcement agencies. This “admission” is merely confirmation of what the FBI has been doing for decades. The FBI, for its entire history, has spent massive amounts of time and money spying on the democratic expressions of ordinary people rather than prosecuting real crime. Might our illustrious FBI better insure “homeland security” by prosecuting the massive number of unprosecuted corporate crimes, including the recent mutual fund looting?

The Movement to Defend the Bill of Rights

The picture is clear; the Bush Administration is actively and selectively using the Patriot Act and the all-round Homeland Security “terror scare” environment to chill and intimidate the immigrant community specifically and the political opponents of Bush generally. With the costs of this pervasive security regimen now pushing into the fiscal ozone, and with virtually no prosecutions of terrorists to point to, it’s no surprise that opposition to the Patriot Act is growing. Many Democrats, and even some Republicans in Congress who initially supported the legislation are now having second thoughts, mostly after receiving large volumes of messages from constituents denouncing both the Patriot Act and it’s outrageous provisions.

Attorney General Ashcroft’s arrogant manner and repeated bogus pronouncements of newly discovered “terror plots” have led to widespread criticism of him by political leaders and activists alike. The growing grassroots movement to defend the Bill of Rights and roll-back the Patriot Act have compelled Ashcroft to mount a recent coast-to-coast public relations blitz aimed at shoring-up political support for the legislation. Senate supporters of the Patriot Act recently spoke out to correct what they called ‘misunderstandings” that the Patriot Act has caused. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT) labeled opponents of the bill as “extremists”; Democrat Diane Feinstein (CA) said that people were suffering from “ignorance” of what was in the bill and how it was being applied.

The growing movement to reclaim our civil liberties, defend our Bill of Rights, and repeal the Patriot Act has come just in a nick of time. Not satisfied with the provisions of the Patriot Act, President Bush has launched a quiet campaign to win passage of “Patriot Act II.” This new scheme would increase government surveillance, increase control of immigrants, establish a new list of terrorist ‘crimes” subject to federal prosecution, expand the applicability of the death penalty, reduce access to public information, establish a DNA database, facilitate the revoking of U.S. citizenship, and event permit the federal government to conduct autopsies in the name of “national security.”! The push to pass Patriot II is stuck in the mud, thanks to the growing movement against Patriot I and the fact that its secret contents were thankfully leaked to the press earlier this year.

Time to Get Busy

There is now no doubt that the entire Bush-Ashcroft Homeland Security offensive - with the Patriot Act as its key legislative tool - was part and parcel of the campaign of lies, intimidations, and exaggerations that paved the way for President Bush to launch the invasion of Iraq. Republicans would not dare speak-up or speak-out against their President; few Democrats had to the courage to do so either. Our national tragedy of September 11th has therefore evolved into a nightmare of war, suspicion, intrusion and repression in the name of “Homeland Security.”

I have no reluctance to say that I do not believe that Bush or Ashcroft are interested in doing anything other than wrecking and blocking the labor movement at every turn, with any tool at their disposal. If they can use the security mania saturating our nation to help increase corporate profits and cement themselves into office they’ll do it. This is no drill. Working people will not find out about the dangers we face by watching television. Bosses are not likely to hold workplace meetings so as to inform subordinates of how the Patriot Act provisions undermine the Bill of Rights. The corporate print media is not likely to lay out the facts about the this quiet crisis with an eye towards generating public opposition. No, these things are my job - and yours.

Chris Townsend is the Political Action Director of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), www.ranknfile-ue.org.

A version of this article appeared in the November-December 2003 Labor Party Press.