Bill of Rights Defense Campaign

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Dissent Is Patriotic

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee's email newsletter

February 2009, Vol. 8, No. 2

In this issue:

Please support BORDC's work to defend the Bill of Rights! Contribute funds or stock online, or mail a check or money order to:

Bill of Rights Defense Committee
8 Bridge St., Suite A
Northampton, MA 01060

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty—power is ever stealing from the many to the few.

Wendell Phillips, US abolitionist (1811 - 1884)

A Call for Grassroots Action:
Obama Uses State Secrets Privilege to Stall Rendition Case

In the month since Barack Obama became president, many people have lauded the steps his administration has taken toward closing Guantánamo Bay detention center and improving government transparency. On February 9, however, the new administration proved that it will not be everything Obama promised during his campaign. Four victims of extraordinary rendition, the practice of secretly transporting terrorism suspects to countries that allow torture for questioning, have sued Jeppesen DataPlan, Inc., the California company that flew them out of U.S. jurisdiction for interrogation. Last year, the Bush administration invoked the state secrets privilege and had the case thrown out of court. This month, despite urging to reverse course by the ACLU, which brought the suit, and the editorial boards of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, the Obama administration backed the Bush argument and called for the case to be dismissed.

This disappointing, but not wholly unexpected, turn of events illustrates just why we must redouble our grassroots efforts. The president—any president—alone cannot be trusted to guard our civil liberties and constitutional protections. It is the responsibility of the Judicial Branch to weigh the administration’s claims of state secrets against the value of holding those who colluded to torture terrorism suspects accountable for their actions. Similarly, it is Congress’s responsibility to create laws that check the power of the Executive Branch so that the president cannot wield the state secrets privilege to cover up illegal acts. But it remains the responsibility of the citizenry to monitor the workings of all three branches of government and to speak out when the rights of citizens are imperiled. Persistent, informed grassroots advocacy is the key to the preservation of civil liberties.

Using the power of broad-based, nonpartisan, local coalitions, we must call on our congressional representatives to fulfill their responsibilities. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) have already stepped up to the plate on this issue and introduced the State Secrets Protection Act (S.417 and H.R.984). The bill, currently in committee, is co-sponsored by six members in each house. It would provide guidance to courts on cases in which the government claims national security will be endangered by allowing the suit to go forward. Specifically, it would keep courts from dismissing cases solely because the state secrets privilege has been invoked, although judges could still do so after reviewing the information behind the claim and allowing the defense to make a counterclaim. The bill would also establish new safeguards for protecting classified information and provide a way for judges to report on the cases to Congress.

As you work to build and strengthen your local People’s Campaign for the Constitution effort, use the power of your diverse coalition to urge your senators and representatives to support this bill and other legislation to protect our constitutional rights. Organize local events for Sunshine Week (March 15-21) to put pressure on Congress and the President to uphold their oaths to “protect and defend the Constitution.” There is still much work to do; the time for grassroots action is now.

PCC News

Conference Calls for Coalition Builders

  • Interested in organizing a local People’s Campaign for the Constitution coalition, but unsure how to begin?
  • Interested in hearing about what is working for coalition organizers in other communities?
  • Interested in brainstorming with other coalition organizers to create plans for further actions?

Sign up for a conference call with other PCC activists in your region by emailing Emma, our grassroots campaign coordinator.

Affinity Groups

The PCC is forming affinity groups for students, educators, clergy, attorneys, librarians, doctors, and people fluent in languages other than English. To be involved in one of these groups, email Emma and put the group you’re interested in joining in the subject. Interested in a group not listed? Let us know that too!

Share Your News

Have experience forming an affinity group or local coalition that you want to share? Email us your thoughts for inclusion in our next newsletter.

Already up and running? We want to hear your news too, and share it to inspire others. Email Emma!

Pledge Your Support!

Not involved yet? Visit the People’s Campaign for the Constitution website and join today! Emma will contact you shortly after you sign up to help you get started.

Law & Policy

Cambridge First to Prevent Operation of Surveillance Cameras

The Cambridge, MA, City Council voted unanimously on February 2 to block the activation of eight surveillance cameras already installed and paid for by the Department of Homeland Security. Communities across the country have accepted Department of Homeland Security grants to install and network surveillance cameras in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Often, as in nearby Boston, MA, there was no public discussion of the installation and operation of the cameras and no vote was ever taken.

In Cambridge, however, city councilors were concerned not only about privacy issues raised by residents, but also by the secrecy of the four to six year grant process and the continuing lack of information regarding the proposed use of the cameras. Briefings in January by the police commissioner and fire chief failed to provide sufficient answers. Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons complained: “We don’t know how they’re going to be operated. We don’t know how they’re going to be governed. We don’t know who’s going to have access to the information that they collect.”

Cambridge is believed to be the first community in this country to reject government use of surveillance cameras. Law enforcement officials argue that the cameras are necessary to monitor potential targets of terrorist activity, and that they also prove useful in criminal investigations and emergency traffic control. The Cambridge City Council remained unconvinced that, as a matter of public policy, the security benefits of surveillance cameras outweigh the potential damage to civil liberties.

Whistleblower Protection Stripped from Final Stimulus Legislation

In the 110th Congress, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act to protect the rights of federal employees who expose illegal, corrupt, or abusive government activity. Unfortunately, while the bill passed the House, it never reached a vote in the Senate.

Late last month, hope for the bill was briefly revived when the House unanimously approved an amendment incorporating the Whistleblower Protection Act into H.R.1, more commonly known as the economic stimulus package. However, the Senate did not include the Whistleblower Protection Act in its version of the stimulus legislation and the House amendment including it did not survive the conference report. The stimulus bill passed without the protection federal whistleblowers need and deserve.

The National Whistleblowers Center continues to push the Whistleblower Protection Act, but the path to passage under President Obama may be rockier than expected. Though Obama endorsed the bill during his campaign, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a member of the Bush administration as well as the Obama administration, co-authored “an unusually tough letter to Congress last year asserting that the bill protecting whistleblowers would threaten national security, violate the Constitution, and undermine the government's ability to safeguard legitimate secrets.” There is a significant divide within the Obama administration as well as within Congress about whether and how to extend whistleblower protections to federal employees. Grassroots advocacy will be needed to ensure that President Obama follows through on his campaign promise to protect the rights of federal employees who expose government wrongdoing.

Grassroots News

Domestic Surveillance in Maryland and Washington State

In 2005, Maryland State Police began “routine preparations” for scheduled executions of two men on death row, at which protests were expected. These “routine preparations” went on for more than a year and included infiltrating several activist groups and spying on hundreds of activists involved in organizations like the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Defending Dissent Foundation, and more. According to the Washington Post, the Maryland police inappropriately labeled 53 individuals as terrorists and shared this information with federal authorities.

On the other side of the country, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee of Tacoma, Washington, has obtained documents confirming that the Tacoma Police Department and Port Police were spying on them, too—and sharing the information with GEO Group, the corporation that operates the Northwest Detention Center, a for-profit immigration prison that BORDC-Tacoma often investigates and protests.

BORDC condemns these cases of warrantless domestic surveillance and supports the efforts of BORDC-Tacoma and civil liberties groups in Maryland to uncover more information about the scope of the surveillance and prevent it from happening again. In response to these privacy violations, the Defending Dissent Foundation has issued a call for spy stories. Have you or your group been spied on by state or federal authorities? Read the call below, and join the fight to restore our civil liberties!

New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee Fights for the Rights of Immigrants

The New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee maintains a constant presence at meetings of the Middlesex County Freeholders in New Brunswick. At the last meeting on Thursday February 19, the NJCRDC took a message to the freeholders demanding that they terminate the county’s immigrant detention contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and address the extreme restrictions on visitation for immigrant detainees that keep them isolated while they are detained at the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center in North Brunswick. NJCRDC succeeded in convincing Passaic County to end its ICE detention contract in 2006.

Several Middlesex County detainees spoke to the freeholders at the meeting, presenting live testimony about the rights violations they endure daily. NJCRDC members wore Guantánamo Bay orange jumpsuits to emphasize the extreme human rights abuses occuring in immigrant detention centers, including Middlesex County Jail. For more information on their campaign to terminate the immigrant detention contract, and information about immigrant detainees across the country, see their website.

Are you working to protect the rights of detainees in your community? NJCRDC wants to hear from you. Many Middlesex County detainees organizing for their rights have been transferred to ICE facilities in other states—perhaps yours. Email the NJCRDC if you are in contact with detainees near you or if you want information about how to start a similar campaign. Be sure to let us know, too, so we can share your story and connect you with activists across the country.

Call for Spy Stories

Has your group been infiltrated or monitored by local, state or federal police or intelligence agencies in the last five to ten years? If so, the Defending Dissent Foundation needs your story for a possible congressional investigation into unconstitutional police spying. Email your stories to DDF Director Sue Udry.

Senators Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) have promised a group of Maryland activists that they will call for an investigation into spying, asking either the Government Accounting Office or the Justice Department Inspector General to document the extent of unconstitutional spying on activists. They have asked Defending Dissent to send reports of police spying around the country to their staff. This is a great opportunity to not only uncover the true extent of this illegal surveillance, but also build a case for strong legislation against spying on law-abiding activists.

For more information, see the Defending Dissent Foundation’s website.

Want your group's actions included in our next newsletter? Send information about your actions and events to Emma, our grassroots campaign coordinator!

Book Review

The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days

Karen Greenberg’s The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days provides an excellent and engaging analysis of Guantánamo Bay’s transformation after 9/11. The book centers around General Michael Lehnert, the man initially selected to run the renovated detention facility. Though the book does not justify or apologize for Guantánamo’s abuses, it provides insight into the mentalities of the guards and the leadership. Greenberg reminds us that after September 11, 2001, the military, like the rest of America, was scared. She reminds us that Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo, and others higher in the chain of command were responsible for orchestrating policies of lawlessness and torture.

General Lehnert is portrayed as a hero, the man who aims to understand rather than simply punish the detainees, who insists on following the Geneva Conventions in spite of Rumsfeld’s contention that they do not apply, and who treats the detention center more like a refugee camp. The Least Worst Place allows us to watch Guantánamo’s chilling evolution unfold as, one step at a time, the highest-level officials of the Bush administration carefully calculate Guantánamo’s tragic course, keeping the media, the public, and even the general in the dark. Greenberg skillfully interweaves her text with quotes from news articles, memos, and interviews, giving the book a narrative quality without fictionalizing the events. Pages of endnotes offer accessible sources of often disturbing accounts and provide Greenberg’s text with academic credibility. The Least Worst Place is a must-read for anyone interested in learning about the early days of Guantánamo, a story the public has not heard until now.


Attorney Sabin Willett Speaks on Closing Guantánamo

On February 12, attorney Sabin Willett spoke to an audience at Smith College’s Helen Hills Hills Chapel on "Closing Guantánamo: Can President Obama Repair Torture's Wreckage?" Attorney Willett is known for his defense of several Uighurs, Chinese separatists who have been held for seven years, without charge, at Guantánamo Bay Detention Center. During his hour-long speech, Willett described in chilling detail the gross mistreatment of prisoners, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and incompatibility with the American justice system that plague Guantánamo Bay. He outlined a simple plan for ushering in a new era of transparency and human rights, and for rejecting America’s plunge into moral ambiguity.

Willett began by insisting that the United States government denounce cruelty as a policy. It is unacceptable that powerful American leaders in international politics, such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, effectively employed Afghani bounty hunters to sell prisoners to the United States. The policies that followed represent some of the worst aspects of a government that condones cruelty: the Military Commissions Act, which denied “enemy combatants” habeas corpus rights (though this section was later struck down by the Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush); extraordinary renditions of prisoners to nations that engage in torture; and the continued detention and mistreatment of prisoners cleared for release. If we are to restore the justice system to one that values human rights and dignity, the next logical step (and the second part of Willett’s plan) is to close Guantánamo Bay as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Willett concluded with a warning that Americans must become shrewder citizens. He examined the danger of “common nouns” infiltrating think tanks and foreign policy debates, and insisted that “when in doubt, demand a proper noun.” Allow each detainee his name, his proper noun, to avoid generalizations such as “too dangerous to release but unable to try.” Sabin Willett’s address was a powerful reminder to the American citizenry to fulfill its obligation to hold the government accountable for making policy decisions that represent the will of the people.

The event was presented by Smith College under the sponsorship of the Pioneer Valley Coalition Against Secrecy and Torture and more than 20 other local, state, and national organizations, including the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Editor: Amy Ferrer, Web & Publications Coordinator
Managing Editor: Barbara Haugen, Administrator
Contributing Writer: Emma Roderick, Grassroots Campaign Coordinator; Bethany Singer-Baefsky, Smith College Intern

Bill of Rights Defense Committee
8 Bridge St., Suite A
Northampton, MA 01060 Web:
Email: info (at)
Telephone: 413-582-0110
Fax: 413-582-0116