Bilal Ayyub, a Potomac resident, is concerned about the direction the nation is taking. “What made this country great is that the individual is protected,” he said.
But now, he says, those individual protections are being eroded by the U.S. Patriot Act. “There are people who are being detained, sometimes for a year, without being charged,” Ayyub said.
Ayyub is the president of the Maryland Arab-American Committee, a group which held a forum about the act and ways it might be repealed at the Potomac Community Center on Jan. 11.
About 105 people attended the forum to hear U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8) and Georgetown law professor David Cole along with three other speakers.
“WE HAVE SOUGHT the course of least resistance,” said Cole. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the government rushed to enact something they hoped would help to defeat terrorism, Cole said. “It’s an understandable desire.”
But it would have been appropriate for the country to examine the question of how much liberty its citizens would be willing to give up in the name of security, Cole said.
Many of the provisions in the act apply only to foreign nationals, he said. “We’ll take their liberties for your security so you don’t have to make the hard choices,” he said.
“Civil Liberties are too important to take for granted,” said Stephen Dwyer of the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition. Dwyer’s group helped to develop the Montgomery County Council’s resolution which opposes the Patriot Act.
Cole says that openness has also been sacrificed, citing the thousands of secret arrests which have been made. While noting that some secrecy is necessary to prevent terrorist organizations from learning our plan, some situations have gone too far.
He posed the hypothetical situation of a woman whose husband does not come home one night. She could call law enforcement to ask if they knew where he was. “The answer would be ‘We don’t know,’ even if he’s sitting in the jail right behind them,” Cole said.
Fair process is also being attacked, according to Cole. “These are not just the rights of citizens. The right not to be locked up arbitrarily is extended to all human beings.”
He said that of the 5,000 people arrested after Sept. 11, there has been only one conviction.
“We have sacrificed a lot. We have gained little,” Cole said.
U.S. REP Chris Van Hollen (D-8) said that the general theme of laws like the Patriot Act will result in the erosion of the American system of checks and balances. He noted that the president has the authority to declare a U.S. citizen an “enemy combatant” and that the courts cannot review that decision.
“Essentially, what we are talking about is an effort to take the courts out of the process,” Van Hollen said.
He also shared information about the so-called “Patriot II,” a proposal by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, which would have given law enforcement more powers.
That bill met with opposition and was withdrawn as a whole. However, individual parts are being inserted into other bills.
Van Hollen pointed to a provision in an intelligence bill which would expand the definition of financial institutions which, in turn, would allow law enforcement broader access to records. “They want to try to sneak them into other pieces of legislation,” he said.
The bill passed, but Van Hollen voted against it.
The U.S. House of Representatives has repealed the “sneak and peek” provision in the Patriot Act which allowed the FBI to search a person’s house without telling them about it.
Van Hollen advised the audience to continue to pressure legislators and to connect with groups in other parts of the state and the nation to get them to do the same. “Things like the Montgomery County Council passing a resolution matter,” Van Hollen said. “Work to get municipalities in other areas to do it.”
The Montgomery Council has passed a resolution opposing the Patriot Act. “It was very important for us to send a message,” said Council President Steve Silverman (D-At Large) who spoke at the meeting. “You can preserve our security without destroying our civil liberties.” Silverman was a co-sponsor of the resolution.
DEL. SUSAN LEE (D-16) also spoke. She is working on a similar resolution in at the state level. “It’s going to be a monumental task,” Lee said. “Montgomery County is not like the rest of Maryland.”
Lee again told the audience to contact their local legislators and to contact organizations in other parts of the state to have them work on their legislators. “We need to step up to the plate and say that Maryland is a state that protects civil rights,” Lee said.
She said the Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) cannot veto such a resolution, but he could choose not to sign it.
“I think we can work together. I think we can get this passed. Maybe not this year, but maybe next year,” Lee said.