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Civil Liberties Group Launches Campaign against US

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Civil Liberties Group Launches Campaign against U.S. Anti-Terrorism Measures

Thu Oct 17,12:13 PM ET

Jim Lobe,OneWorld US

The oldest and largest civil liberties organization in the United States has launched an unprecedented campaign to recover freedoms that it claims have been subverted by the anti-terrorist measures introduced by the administration of President George W. Bush after September 11, 2001.

The US$3.5 million campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) features--for the first time in its history--paid television ads as well as a general mobilization of its 300,000 members and staff in all 50 states.

The 30-second ads, which began a one-week run Wednesday in selected U.S. cities, attacks Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) by name, accusing him of "seiz(ing) powers for the Bush administration that no president should ever have," including "the right to investigate you for what you say, to intrude on your privacy, to hold you in jail without charging you with a crime."

"He's supposed to defend the constitution," according to the spot. "Not rewrite it."

"There are a growing number of people in America who are frightened and angry about the government's anti-civil liberties response to the terrorist attacks--and they are ready to act," said ACLU Washington Director Laura Murphy at a press conference in Washington Wednesday. "We are going to organize them, expand their numbers and put politicians in Washington on notice that the American people want the checks and balances of democracy, not the edicts and decrees of kings."

Ashcroft said he was not disturbed by the campaign. "I'm glad I live in a country where the ACLU can criticize me and vigorously debate the issues," he said in a statement. "I consider it my job as attorney general to make sure that this and all our freedoms endure."

The ACLU, which has filed two dozen lawsuits since September 11 challenging government secrecy, the detention of immigrants and U.S. citizens, discrimination against Arab Americans, and the violation of free-speech rights of protestors, has set three main targets in its new campaign, which it calls "Keep America Safe and Free."

First, it will work to reverse Ashcroft's recent decree that removed a number of constraints on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI (news - web sites)) ability to engage in domestic spying against groups or individuals taking part in constitutionally protected activities. Those constraints were put in place in the mid-1970s after congressional hearings revealed FBI efforts to discredit the Reverend Martin Luther King and other government critics during the civil rights era and the Vietnam War.

To achieve these aims, the ACLU will aid a growing grassroots movement to pass city council resolutions that will bar local police departments from cooperating with the FBI in carrying out such surveillance operations.

Second, the campaign will lobby to repeal or modify several of the most sweeping provisions in the USA Patriot Act approved one year ago. Specifically, the ACLU wants to ensure that wiretapping by federal agencies is subject to meaningful judicial review; that law enforcement agents are required to give notice when searching a home; that non-citizens who are not dangerous terrorists are not subject to indefinite detention; and that dissident groups engaged in lawful activities are not made victims of anti-terrorist laws or operations.

Third, the ACLU will work to ensure privacy rights by fighting proposals to create any form of national identification cards, a major concern of many right-wing groups as well.

It will also join ranks with the American Library Association to educate the public about the degree of the FBI's jurisdiction. "Librarians must turn over the names of people and what they read to the FBI," said Murphy. "And, even more frightening, librarians commit a crime if they even reveal that the FBI has asked for this information."

On hand for Wednesday's launch were three individuals whose loyalty has been questioned since September 11.

Sister Virgine Lawinger was traveling with a peace group from Wisconsin when she was barred from boarding a domestic flight to Washington and detained for questioning without receiving any explanation. The ACLU has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to determine the grounds for her detention.

Danny Muller, a member of Voices in the Wilderness, a group that opposes economic sanctions against Iraq, was questioned by police and the local postal inspector at length about his patriotism and activities after asking to buy 4,000 stamps with the Statute of Liberty rather than the American flag.

A. J. Brown, a student at a North Carolina College, was interrogated at length by Secret Service agents after someone anonymously reported that she had a poster critical of Bush. During the interview, she was asked whether she had any maps of Afghanistan (news - web sites) or "pro-Taliban stuff" in her apartment.

"These three separate experiences indicate the resurgence of a disturbing climate in which the government indiscriminately abridges the rights of ordinary citizens," said ACLU Executive Director, Anthony Romero.

"The challenge before us today is to resist the fear that leads to repression and to promote liberty at the very time it is under attack," he said.

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