Maybe you checked out a book about Middle Eastern politics from the downtown library. Or perhaps you contributed to an aid organization bringing food to Afghani kids. Or maybe you just have a funny-sounding name. Under section 215 of the US Patriot Act, the FBI can start spying on you for any of these reasons. Even more frightening: under the Patriot Act, federal agents don't really need any reason to poke around inside your life.
Enacted in the uncertain weeks after 9/11, the act swings open the door for federal agents to ransack your life and melts away former privacy protections. It allows the FBI to seize all manner of private records from people without probable cause, as well as allowing agents to tap phone lines and listen in on otherwise private conversations--all without warrants. Both in real and symbolic terms, the so-called Patriot Act has come to represent a new epoch where civil liberties and privacy rights become second-class citizens.
But last Wednesday, at a simultaneous news conference in Detroit and Portland, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI director Robert Mueller. The lawsuit may be a line in the sand, but it's the first sign in almost two years that citizens are pushing back against the federal government and trying to corral its powers. The lawsuit emanates from Portland because members from Masjed As-Saber (ICPMA), the local Islamic Center of Portland, believe the FBI has routinely spied on them.
"I believe the FBI has investigated me--and may still be investigating me--because of my religious beliefs and my country of origin," laments Alaa Abunijem, the president for ICPMA. An articulate, affable man with a kind face, Abunijem was born in Saudi Arabia and has been living in the U.S. since 1989. Granted citizenship in 1996, his wife and four children are all U.S. citizens. He received a master's degree from PSU and now works as a senior technical marketing engineer.
Abunijem has tried to find out whether he is under suspicion, but the FBI has rebuffed his requests for information. "Under the U.S. Patriot Act," he explains, "I do not have the right to know if the government is looking at the list of books I've borrowed from my library, examining my medical records, or seeking information about me from my employer."
One certain sign that Abunijem has been under suspicion is that agents called to question him about a charitable donation he made to "Help The Needy," a group sending food and clothing to Iraqi people.
Other members of ICPMA were disturbed after discovering a FBI informant had secretly recorded conversations with individuals at their mosque in June 2002.
"For many of us who attend ICPMA and who are immigrants, the United States government's secrecy and intrusive questioning are unsettling," says Abunijem. "Many of us left countries where people were guilty until proven innocent. America is a place where--even if we are members of a religious minority--we are equal to all other Americans in the eyes of the law. We have joined this lawsuit to remind the government that we should be treated fairly, like the Bill of Rights requires," he adds.
The ACLU believes the traditional investigation methods used by the FBI--requesting documents be turned over or subpoenaing documents--are sufficient. "These provisions are not necessary to investigate the war on terrorism," says David Fidanque executive director for ACLU of Oregon. They only need these types of powers if they are investigating innocent people," he adds.
Fidanque concludes, "These wild goose chases don't result in making us any safer, they result in making us less free."
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a defeat for expanding the Patriot Act two weeks ago in the US House of Representatives, where representatives voted 309 to 118 to scale back a "sneak and peek" provision that would have allowed agents to conduct searches without notifying the subject. In October 2001, the House voted 337 to 79 to pass the Patriot Act.