Archive for the ‘Tenth Anniversary Series’ Category

Ten years of standing for liberty when our government won’t

Thursday, November 10, 2011 at 8:01 am by

Today, November 10, 2011, is a monumental day for the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. Ten years ago today, a small group of activists gathered in Northampton, Massachusetts, to begin organizing against the just-passed USA PATRIOT Act. Their work resonated in their community and across the country, and together they founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

BORDC’s founding director, Nancy Talanian, wrote about that time in her foreword to the third edition of Terrorism and the Constitution:

After September 11, 2001, it was impossible for those familiar with the U.S. government’s history of overreaching in times of crisis not to recognize the patterns, as Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants were rounded up indiscriminately, the Justice Department’s surveillance powers were expanded through executive fiat, and Congress steamrolled passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in late October 2001.

Two weeks later, a small group of Northampton, Massachusetts, residents convened to consider the significance of the patriot Act and other ominous government actions….

When change inside the Washington Beltway seemed impossible, the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee formed to organize locally. In Northampton the group tested a strategy that has since been repeated in several hundred locales, involving local education and debate about federal policies, followed by passage of a city council resolution enabling the municipal government to take a stand—objecting to the civil liberties abuses of the “war on terror,” and telling local law enforcement not to infringe on locals’ constitutional rights even if the Patriot Act and other federal laws and policies might encourage them to do so.

Between 2001 and 2007, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee spearheaded a nationwide effort to oppose the PATRIOT Act. In the end, Bill of Rights resolutions were passed by 406 cities and towns, 8 states, and 89 labor unions, organizations, religious bodies, and campuses. These resolutions changed the debate around the PATRIOT Act and its reauthorization, including in Congress, where former Senator Larry Craig read the Idaho state resolution on the Senate floor.

Seeking to build upon this wildly successful resolution effort, we at BORDC worked to develop new local organizing platforms that would go beyond merely expressing a city’s beliefs to provide real, enforceable limits on government programs and policies that violate civil liberties and constitutional rights.

In 2009, we began this new phase, launching our Local Civil Rights Restoration and torture accountability campaigns. Today, these campaigns are underway in dozens of cities across the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and West Coast, with new coalitions forming all the time.

Though we are deeply disappointed that this work continues to be necessary, we are proud of what we have accomplished these last ten years working to protect and restore our most fundamental rights. And we are even more proud that you have stood with us in these efforts. We the People are the only thing that stands in the way of the continued destruction of civil liberties and constitutional rights, and we are honored to stand with you—today, and for as long as it takes to restore our nation to its ideals.


Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and the history of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.

Bubbles and bricks

Friday, October 28, 2011 at 10:26 am by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and the history of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


Bubbles and bricksA few weeks ago, I was in a conference, listening to testimonies of those who have experienced racial profiling. As I heard their stories, I wanted to share how BORDC’s Local Civil Rights Restoration (LCRR) campaigns can change local law and stop the practices that are plaguing their communities.

But it seems so overwhelming: the heart ache, trauma, deeply felt loss, anger, and distrust knowing a loved one is caught up in an unjust process that sees a criminal or potential terrorist in every black or brown face, everyone wearing a hijab or regularly attending a Mosque. Over these past ten years since 9/11 and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, this kind of profiling has grown exponentially, and communities of color experience it every day. When you’re dealing with that reality, how can you find the energy and commitment to work on the kind of long-term effort that the LCRR requires?

That’s when I remembered bubbles and bricks.

You see, bubbles and bricks is an anti-oppression exercise used in workshops to demonstrate the difference between personal pain and oppression. They feel very similar, but their relationship to institutional power and the process necessary to changing the conditions of the pain or oppression differ. It can be helpful to know that difference.

Personal pain can be very severe and have lasting effects, to be sure, but it is finite and can be stopped either naturally (one ages, moves, or a perpetrator dies), or by individual or collective effort (someone is made to stop the unjust acts; they’re arrested, or confronted by people who make them stop). Like a bubble, personal pain can and eventually will end. Oppression, on the other hand, is chronic, always present, and can only be mitigated or stopped by mass collective action, by changing laws and cultural norms. Like a brick, it endures.

For instance, growing up poor in a system that values money and views those who have money as superior subjects individuals to the system of oppression based on class. And while growing up in a household with a violent parent can feel like oppression (and is oppression during the time the parent has total power over the child), as an adult the scars of that experience are an example of personal pain (the power dynamic is no longer there, although the emotional toll may be great).

The critical difference between the two is power—oppression has the power to use institutional forces to keep targeted groups fearful and vulnerable in order to maintain a sense that the group is powerless. But despite that power, collective action can change oppression, brick by brick.

BORDC’s LCRR campaigns builds shared power by mobilizing diverse local coalitions united by common interests in (1) profiling according to race, national origin, religion, or ideology; (2) domestic surveillance unjustified by individualized suspicion of criminal activity; and (3) enforcement of federal immigration law.

An LCRR campaign confronts federal authorities at the local level by confronting the various forms of profiling. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) prey on Latinos and immigrants, CBP and the FBI target Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, and the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) marginalize African Americans. But these profiling practices are united by the fact that it is largely up to local law enforcement to carry out the work of these federal agencies. As a result, taking on these practices at the local level provides an opportunity to build strong relationships and collective political power across civil rights, immigrants’ rights, peace and justice, and faith organizations, as well as Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities, allowing coalitions to influence local—and by proxy, federal—policy. This is the kind of power that transcends personal fear and pain to transform current conditions and make lasting change!

There is little any individual can do to halt the pain felt by a target of deportation, unwarranted surveillance, harassment, or detention. But when all affected communities come together, build deep and strong relationships to shift the cultural and political landscape, and then demand policy and legislative change, we can permanently halt the oppression at the root of racial profiling.

Ten years later: Building a movement to restore the Bill of Rights

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 at 2:10 pm by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and the history of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


Liberty BellOver the past decade, our democracy has withered under an assault by our nation’s intelligence agencies and internal security forces. Despite the continuing erosion of constitutional rights, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is helping build a grassroots movement of concerned Americans from all walks of life defending the principles that have long made America great.

In Southern California, New England, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southeast—and many points in between—BORDC supports diverse local coalitions challenging law enforcement and intelligence abuses. Instead of struggling within issue silos to combat specific abuses or clamoring about issues ignored by Congress and other policymakers, we help coalitions build shared power around a proactive agenda to transform the civil liberties debate.

BORDC has helped concerned Americans raise their independent voices since the beginning of the “war on terror.” From our founding in 2001 through 2007, we worked with local activists around the country on creating “civil liberties safe zones.” Proving that engaged community members can set the agenda at the local level, over 400 cities and towns across the country, plus eight (both red and blue) states, enacted resolutions opposing the USA PATRIOT Act. This work was crucial in raising awareness, building a transpartisan echo chamber, and setting expiration dates for several of the worst PATRIOT Act provisions during the 2005 congressional reauthorization debate.

As the government’s surveillance powers continued to grow, we expanded our work to engage communities vulnerable to the abuses of the surveillance state. While post-9/11 abuses were initially focused on people from Muslim and Arab backgrounds, government offenses have broadened since then: today, the FBI is investigating activists, building a pervasive biometric identification using immigrants as political bait, and setting up more and more privacy-violating Joint Terrorism Task Forces and fusion centers around the country.

Though neither litigation nor policy advocacy have restored fundamental liberties, local grassroots organizing presents real opportunities for change—especially as state budget crises have forced governments to reexamine law enforcement programs and priorities. A grassroots movement is among our nation’s few hopes to restore constitutional rights in the 21st century. Mobilizing and supporting that movement is, and has always been, the focus of BORDC’s work.

Since 2009, BORDC has organized local and state campaigns bringing together South Asian, Arab, peace and justice, interfaith, Latino, and African-American communities around a shared vision reflecting each of those communities’ interests. Our efforts have transformed the policy debate, rebuilt civil society, and strengthened a transpartisan populist movement in cities and towns across America. We have helped secure local policy reforms, prompted statewide policy debates, and empowered local activists from all walks of life.

One way we help is by connecting the dots across an otherwise fragmented movement. In Hartford, CT, BORDC recruited a broad coalition of local organizations, bringing together groups including the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and peace and justice groups. They worked to raised awareness of civil liberties issues and eventually prompted an ongoing statewide policy debate on racial profiling. The coalition has expanded from each meeting to the next, hosting public discussions, packing meetings at City Hall, and reaching out to the press. Local media coverage of their efforts helped prompt an ongoing policy reform process in the state legislature.

On the opposite end of the country, a young Latino member of a city council in the Bay Area recently said that BORDC “do[es] incredible and important work and we are lucky to be working with you.” We worked with him to help review public records to support oversight of local police, noting a significant impact from our efforts to recruit local groups to raise public awareness and support enforceable policy change.

As our nation reflects on the past decade, the constitutional vision with which America once inspired the world emerges as the greatest casualty of the 9/11 attacks. Driven by fear and suspicion, our leaders have spectacularly failed their oaths to defend (or even understand) our Constitution.

But where Americans from diverse backgrounds remember our shared interests and organize at the grassroots across demographic and ideological boundaries to educate, empower, and inspire each other, we can build shared power.  The Bill of Rights Defense Committee is proud to inform, empower, mobilize, and support Americans from all walks of life—and political persuasions—who care about keeping America free.

Ten years of torture

Friday, September 23, 2011 at 9:48 am by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and the history of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


Torture Tapes (narrow)On September 11, 2001, America fell down a rabbit hole. Ten years later, we are deeply entrenched in an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where up is down and black is white—where acts of evil lead to other acts of evil, which come disguised as acts of good and are justified with false logic. Case in point: since 9/11, our government claims that it protects us by practicing torture. The defenders of torture, as Mother Jones magazine stateswant it both ways: They want to insist that torturing detainees was necessary to effectively interrogate them but that waterboarding isn’t torture.”

Perform a Google search for “government torture” during the 1990s and watch news articles about torture in other countries (Mexico, Chile, etc.) appear. These mostly Third World governments were criticized worldwide for their atrocious violations of basic human rights. Change the search criteria to the years from 2002 on, and articles about US government torture dominate the list. This is our post-9/11 “wonderland,” a place where, in the space of three months during 2007, President George W. Bush declared, “This government does not torture people,” and a CIA interrogator reported that he supervised the “necessary” torture of al-Qaeda’s Abu Zubaydah.

Torture is part of American culture now, with its acceptance mirrored in the attitudes of those who applaud the death penalty and the imminent death of people who do not have health insurance. For the 9/11 generation, the children born into this topsy-turvy world, torture isn’t even torture; it’s enhanced interrogation. It’s as normal to most Americans as taking your shoes off before you can get on a plane.

Each year, we hear the names of those who died on 9/11 read with solemn reverence, as they should be. But we never hear anyone read the names of those who have been tortured, by our government, in our name. Instead, “former Vice President Cheney feels confident enough to take credit for his role in torture.”

The Human Rights Watch report titled “Getting Away with Torture” states, “when a government as dominant and influential as the United States openly defies laws against torture, it virtually invites others to do the same.” And, indeed, we are living among mad queens who feel justified in proclaiming “Off with their heads!” May the next ten years bring us out of this rabbit hole and back up into the clear light of day.

Constitution Day 2011: Freedom not fear

Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and the history of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


In the aftermath of my events on Sept. 11, 2011, I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance. Though I never left my seat, spoke to anyone on the flight or tinkered with any “suspicious” device, I was forced into a situation where I was stripped of my freedom and liberty that so many of my fellow Americans purport are the foundations of this country and should be protected at any cost….This country has operated for the last 10 years through fear. We’ve been a country at war and going bankrupt for much of this time. What is the next step?

– Shoshana Hebshi, Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit, Tales from the Heartland

US ConstitutionThe F-16 fighters that had shadowed the plane before it landed in Detroit and the SWAT team that dragged Shoshanna and her two Indian seatmates from their seats was responding to the crew’s report that … somebody had been spending too long in the bathroom. On the same day, F-16s also scrambled for another flight where … three people made repeated trips to the bathroom. WTF?

Following a catastrophic national event, such as 9/11 in the United States, conditions are anything but ordinary. The people are traumatized, they long for someone to make them feel secure, and an ancient paranoia switch is once again waiting to snap on. Under these conditions, fear mongers thrive. Their characteristics are so hand in glove with the trauma reaction of the population that their identifying behaviors are scarcely “seen” at all. In short, after we have been thoroughly traumatized, we cannot see the devil.

– Martha Stout, The Paranoia Switch

The fear brokers continue to rule in DC, with the TSA ratcheting up the oppression and Obama breaking his campaign promises and pushing through a PATRIOT Act extension without any additional protections. Economic fears are in overdrive as well, with so many people living close to the edge, scared of their job disappearing, or working ridiculous hours just to almost make ends meet. It’s depressing even to write about it.

But fear only works so long. Jane Jacobs used to tell a story about community organizing and trying to collect signatures in Manhattan at the height of McCarthyism in the 50s. Day afer day, everybody was scared to sign — and who could blame them? And then one day … people started signing.

Starting late last year enough people in Tunisia got to the point where they were so done with living in fear that they put their lives on the line day after day until things changed. Which kicked off Arab Spring kicked off, with people in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Syria also risking torture and death. Now there are huge demonstrations in Spain, Greece, and Israel. At some point, people collectively say “enough is enough”.

This Saturday, September 17th, concerned European citizens with the Freedom not Fear movement have decided to take their protest to the capital of the European Union, Brussels. Their slogan: Stop the surveillance mania

– Katitza Rodriguez, Freedom Not Fear: Ending A Decade Long Legacy of International Privacy Erosion, EFF’s Deep Links

Back in 2009, I was on a panel at CFP where Ralf Bendrath talked about the first years of Freedom not Fear. I coveredGet FISA Right and Join the Impact, Gaurav Mishra discussed Vote Report India, and moderator Nancy Scola led us in a debate about whether social networks were more likely to be a tool for liberation — or for repression. I was optimistic, and it seems to me that events since then have largely justified that optimism.

Of course it’s the people who make the difference, and social network sites are only one of many tools they use. But as tools go, they’re mighty powerful — especially combined with the kind of local and national organizing Shahid Buttar of Bill of Rights Defense Committee describes in Restoring the Fourth Amendment: How We the People can Win Over Washington.

So while the fear brokers still seem in control in DC, I think we’re in the middle of a shift. At the height of February’s unexpected resistance, the PATRIOT Act was the hottest topic on blogs and Twitter. Even the Wall Street Journal is against e-Verify, the latest incarnation of a National ID Card. And the TSA’s continued overreach and incompetence is sparking more and more anger across the political spectrum.

By the time Constitution Day 2012 rolls around, I expect we’ll see a lot more people choosing freedom over fear here in the US as well.

Why not start today?

Happy Constitution Day!

Top Secret America: The hidden world of US intelligence after 9/11

Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 10:25 am by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


How effective are intelligence organizations in preventing terrorist attacks? Who oversees the intelligence community? How much is the gathering and analysis of intelligence costing us? It turns out the answer to these questions is that we don’t really know. We do know, however, that the American intelligence machine has grown to gargantuan proportions following the attacks of 9/11.

Dana Priest and William Arkin, two Washington Post reporters, have been investigating the shrouded world of US intelligence for years, a world they have dubbed “Top Secret America.” Their findings are published in a special section of the Washington Post website as well as in a new book titled Top Secret America: The Rise of a New American Security State. Their work has garnered a lot of attention from the media recently as our nation looks back at the years since 9/11. It was the subject of a recent episode of Frontline on PBS and Dana Priest was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

After 9/11, the intelligence community experienced phenomenal growth made possible by a blank check from Congress. Intelligence and counterterrorism centers and task forces proliferated across the country, staffed by some 854,000 people who hold top-secret security clearances. Dana Priest and William Arkin identified and mapped all the buildings and companies involved in Top Secret America. Their research has shown that some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. Many are housed in nondescript commercial office buildings in mostly wealthy communities. Together they form an extensive bureaucracy hidden from the public.

How the various participants in intelligence and counterterrorism interact is unclear. In fact, no one is really in charge of ensuring that they work together effectively and efficiently. The absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was largely considered a failure of the intelligence community. The Bush administration consequently created the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) with the hope of coordinating the efforts of all the government agencies involved in intelligence. An enormous office—the size of five Wal-Mart stores stacked on top of each other—was built in Washington, DC, to house the office of the DNI. This experiment, however, has largely failed. According to Priest:

This particular office—which again, was created after 9/11 to manage the entire 16 intelligence agencies, according to people in those agencies, is not a great benefit, has not made operations better, has not made it more likely that those 16 agencies will find the people they’re looking for and stop the next attack.

Rather, a lot of the intelligence work being done consists of “reinventing the wheel that another organization has already reinvented five times.”

Moreover, there is very little oversight from Congress. The intelligence committees are grossly understaffed and cannot exercise any significant review of Top Secret America.

Another important aspect of Top Secret America is the involvement of the intelligence private sector which also experienced a boom following 9/11. While it seemed that government was not growing, private contractors multiplied. Attracted by higher salaries and less stressful jobs, some of the best people working for the government left and joined the private sector. Ironically, these same people were sold back to the government for two or three times as much.

President Obama campaigned on the promise that his presidency would usher in a new era in intelligence. In fact, he continued most of the intelligence practices inaugurated during the Bush administration and the growth of Top Secret America generally. Politically, cutting back on these programs is a sensitive issue; in the event of another terrorist attack, the party not in power would be quick to argue that the cuts in intelligence spending were responsible for the breach in security.

The problem with all of this is that it is covered up in so much secrecy that there is no meaningful way of exercising public scrutiny. At a time when 15.1 percent of the American population is living below the poverty line, Top Secret America is costing us billions of dollars, but we don’t know and cannot find out whether these expenditures are necessary.

The legacy of 9/11: An institutionalization of terror at home and abroad

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 12:52 pm by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and the history of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


Responding to terror perpetrated by 19 men with box-cutters a decade ago, the US government has now put hundreds of millions of innocent Americans into countless military, intelligence, and law enforcement databases without suspecting them of any crime. The National Security Agency eavesdrops on over 1.7 billion pieces of our email, phone, and other communications each day. And the government has spent trillions of dollars on often worthless “homeland” security bureaucrats and technologies—not to mention the additional trillions spent on the various declared and undeclared wars associated with the ongoing “war on terror.”

In the name of fighting terrorism, the government has institutionalized a massive response based on fear more than anything else. In the name of defending our freedoms, our government has fractured them as thoroughly as the WTC towers and Pentagon. In the name of enhancing security, it has damaged the authentic security and future of the nation.

Propagandistically “selling” the new security institutions and technologies to Americans has served the selfish interests of demagogic politicians, a conflict-loving mainstream media, and the wealthy contractors from the military-industrial-surveillance complex. But this has come at the expense of everyone else in the nation, now and in the future. Terrorists and criminals can easily evade most of these technologies; ordinary citizens won’t.

As carefully documented by Dana Priest and William Arkin in their new book, Top Secret America (based on the Washington Post series of the same name), no one—not even the government itself—has any real idea how much money’s being spent or who’s doing what in these new agencies; and worse, they are so secretive, duplicative, and inefficient that they simply don’t work.

Patriot actAs with the PATRIOT Act itself, mission creep and the rarity of actual terror events means that these new Keystone Cops are increasingly using these awesome new powers and technologies for petty crime (like ensuring that proceeds from neighborhood magazine subscription sales aren’t pocketed) or, worse yet, for active repression of peaceful dissenters, environmental and anti-war activists, animal rights and pro- and anti-abortion rights activists, Tea Party members, and libertarians.

The FBI, CIA, the military’s new Northern Command, and the top-secret Joint Special Operational Command, in partnership with local police, corporations, and the 72 duplicative and ineffective “fusion centers,” use the powerful new technologies and surveillance authorities to secretly access our bank records, emails, airline and other travel information. Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities are particular targets. Ironically, again, the military and law enforcement authorities supposedly protecting our freedoms and democracy are jeopardizing those rights and that democracy.

This new us-versus-them, jingoistic militarism has even crept into our politics (just look at debate over drones and troops at the border), TV shows (from 24 to NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service), music (from Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” to Toby Keith’s “The Angry American”), and movies (from Captain America to Cowboys and Aliens). Our national character seems to have morphed into national caricature – an extreme, almost cartoon version of characteristics our nation possesses at its worst rather than its best: violence, racism, discrimination, arrogance, stupidity.

Respect for rights is indeed the only source of true security in our nation—the most diverse in the world—especially in a world that contains both newly empowered diversity and diversified power.

President Obama has compounded the errors of Bush and Cheney by cynically continuing essentially the same flawed approaches. Most egregiously, he has dramatically escalated some of the most morally and legally indefensible and counterproductive techniques, including the global drone attacks now condemned even by Obama’s former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and increased reliance upon extra-judicial killings or assassinations that completely sidestep fair trials and due process by targeting even US citizens.

These may produce some short-term “successes,” but they yield long-term catastrophe as revenge kicks in, those killed are quickly replaced, further offshoots of al Qaeda are created, both non-nuclear nations like Yemen and the Philippines and nuclear nations like Pakistan are destabilized, and, in short, the US creates more terrorists.

What Abraham Lincoln noted about the ironic vulnerability of our freedoms could just as readily be applied to our authentic national security: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

This article was previously published by Madison.com, Nation of Change, and the Valley Advocate.

A decade after 9/11, all Americans are victims

Monday, September 12, 2011 at 10:16 am by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


On September 11, 2001, America woke up to a beautiful fall morning. Only hours later, those blue skies were marred with smoke in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. And the American psyche, too, was marred by the ensuing trauma. Fear understandably pervaded this country on that day ten years ago and the days that followed. Unfortunately, the government only encouraged that fear, and a decade later, our nation is still firmly in its grasp.

9/11 duskNearly 3,000 victims died in the terrorist attacks, but sadly, they have not been the only victims. Thanks to the US government’s expansion of counterterror policies—beginning with the USA PATRIOT Act just six weeks after the attacks and continuing with new policies as recent as this year—every American is now a victim of the loss of liberty in this new national security state.

From the infamous PATRIOT Act to the warrantless wiretapping program to airport body scanners to the FBI’s undercover infiltration of activist groups and religious organizations, all of us are losing our rights to privacy—whether we know it or not. And though they would not be justifiable even if they did, none of these violations of our most fundamental civil liberties—those guaranteed to all Americans in the Constitution and Bill of Rights—have made us more secure.

In fact, as revealed in Dana Priest and William Arkin’s Top Secret America series and many other books and articles over the years, the massive surveillance programs now in place are so unwieldy that they actually make it more difficult to identify real threats. Monitoring millions of emails and setting up extensive no-fly lists (including everyone from toddlers to actor Mark Ruffalo) just adds hay to the haystack, making finding a needle that much more unlikely.

Further, there’s so much secrecy surrounding the surveillance and national security programs that the government itself doesn’t have a good grasp on the size, breadth, power, and cost of the military-industrial-surveillance complex. Without transparency into the realities of what government agencies are really doing behind closed doors, We the People are denied the power to stand up for our rights and liberties—a power supposedly guaranteed to us in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Ten years later, nearly every American has lost civil freedoms to one degree or another. Is that really the legacy this country wants for the September 11 attacks and their victims? In another ten years, what will have happened to the rule of law and constitutional liberties our country’s founders set out for all Americans?

If we are to change the course of history once again, to put it back on track and restore the full promise of our Constitution, We the People must take action. A movement is already building to set things right. In the years immediately following the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, more than 400 cities and 8 states across the country stood up against it by passing resolutions supporting the Bill of Rights and opposing laws and policies that infringed upon those liberties. Today, Americans of all walks of life in dozens of cities and towns from New England to the Deep South, from the Midwest to the West Coast, are standing up once again, organizing for accountability and mobilizing to protect privacy and civil liberties. Momentum is building. Progress is being made. The movement is growing. And that should be the true legacy of 9/11.

The greatest casualty of 9/11: The America we knew

Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 11:31 am by

Ten years ago on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. In the panic of the weeks that followed, the American government began changing its counterterrorism policies in ways that undermined constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, culminating in the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act on October 26, 2001. Within two weeks of that law’s passage, on November 10, 2001, organizers in Massachusetts founded the Bill of Rights Defense Committee to fight against that dangerous law and others that followed.

To mark the tenth anniversary of these pivotal events in American history and of our organization itself, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee is running a series of articles looking back on the last ten years. This post is part of that series.


LibertyReflections on the 9/11 attacks are important and moving. But most overlook the enduring legacy of the attacks, in the form of the vastly greater damage done to American principles over the past decade. Whether in the context of surveillance, torture, or the congressional cowardice that has enabled them, our leaders have sullied the legacy of an America that once inspired the world.

Earlier this summer, when facing a crucial accountability moment for an agency that continues to abuse the rights of millions of Americans, members of Congress asked no tough questions, avoided controversy, and submitted to a White House proposal to entrench the FBI leadership—at the same time as they fought to the knuckles over issues that Congress created in the first place by spending the country into a fiscal black hole and absurdly cutting taxes in the midst of multiple wars.

Most astounding in all this is Congress’s apparent abandonment of its own institutional interests. Even in the face of documented lies by the FBI’s leadership to congressional committees and repeated proof that Congress, the press, and the public are hearing only tiny slices of the whole truth, Congress has failed to use its many tools to seek transparency and investigate executive abuses.

There was a time that America’s leaders took seriously their oaths to defend the Constitution by conducting aggressive oversight of executive agencies. A generation ago, for instance, the Church and Pike Committees investigated many of the same practices that have recurred in the past decade. The failure of their successors in Congress threatens the future of democracy in America and reflects a disturbing pattern of congressional submission to executive power.

Congress began lining up to defend executive abuses in the face of public criticism soon after the 9/11 attacks. Special registration requirements, the PATRIOT Act’s draconian surveillance powers, unprecedented authorities to arbitrarily—and indefinitely—detain individuals on the mere basis of accusation, and major revisions to the FBI Guidelines all generated little debate in Congress.

And while we might find comfort in the hope that a counter-movement would emerge, that hope is misplaced. Despite running on a platform announcing that the “choice between liberty and security” was “false,” the Obama administration has continued—and even expanded—the Bush administration’s surveillance and secrecy. And by reversing course on accountability for torture, the Obama administration affirmed that criminals with enough political connections would receive judges’ robes rather than prison terms.

Even when ordered by multiple courts to release evidence of detainee abuse, the White House refused. In fall 2009, in the midst of a year-long battle to extend healthcare to 42 million underinsured Americans, Congress took less than a week to change the law at the Obama administration’s request so that evidence of the Bush administration’s abuses would remain hidden from the public. This, after abandoning Obama’s original nominee to lead the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department because she favored applying the law equally to all accused criminals, regardless of their political position.

Leave aside that hiding evidence of detainee abuse places our soldiers at risk abroad by driving the recruitment efforts of violent extremists and effectively inviting our enemies to treat our troops in the same inhumane way. Ignore the 2.3 million Americans rotting behind bars—25 percent of the world’s prisoners, in the nation that claims to lead the free world—while politically connected criminals enjoy power, prestige, and even lifetime judicial office. Forget about the sacrifices of the soldiers who gave their lives in WWII to usher in a lost era of peace, or how human rights precedents that our nation established in Nuremberg have been wrecked by our unwillingness to pursue uncomfortable truths.

Think instead about how the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) came to be: through controversy stoked by grassroots activists who broke into an FBI office and elite critics who used their findings to spark a two-year congressional investigation documenting heinous abuses by FBI and CIA officials. The FOIA stood for 40 years, but when courts interpreted it to require the revelation of Pentagon crimes, Congress quickly joined President Obama to change the law. “Move along. Nothing to see here…”

Think about why the CIA destroyed videotapes documenting torture. And then remember the debate in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s elimination over whether to revive torture, even though the Defense Department said it was unhelpful and claimed to have ended the practice.

The American people voted in 2008 for change, including restoring constitutional protections against unchecked secret dragnet surveillance and accountability for human rights abuses. The abject failure of our government to reflect that mandate reflects how perverted our republic has grown. For a project that took two and a half centuries to build, the past decade has been catastrophic for democracy in America. When future generations look back on our failures, the attacks of a decade ago will be the least of their concerns.