by Anna Simon

No one is quite sure why Intel employee Mike Hawash was whisked away a month ago, or why a dozen armed FBI agents woke his wife and three children and raided his home that same morning. But what civil rights attorneys are quite certain about is that this is just the beginning.

On March 20, one day before the U.S. formally invaded Iraq, agents from the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force detained Maher (Mike) Hawash, a 38-year-old Hillsboro resident, from the parking lot of the Intel office building where he worked. Since then, Hawash, an American citizen born in the West Bank and brought up in Kuwait, has been held in solitary confinement (upon his request) without being charged with any crime.

Though federal officials refuse to comment on Hawash's detainment, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones confirmed that Hawash is being kept as a material witness in a secret grand jury investigation. No one involved with the case is allowed to comment; the only news has been Judge Jones' recent announcement that Hawash will be detained at least until the end of April.

Now, as the intensity of the war in Iraq begins to recede, civil rights groups are predicting that more and more federal agents will declare war on civil liberties and protections at home.

"Mike is just the tip of the iceberg," says David Fidanque, Executive Director of the Oregon ACLU. "There's no question that [Attorney General John] Ashcroft and the Justice Department have been bending the constitution for what they think is a good cause," he adds.

Civil rights attorneys say cases like Hawash's and similar invasions into basic liberties will most likely become more prevalent over the coming months and years.

"The Bush Administration is being very clear they expect the war on terrorism to last for decades," Fidanque explains. Using laws like the USA Patriot Act and the "material witness rule," federal agents have been rounding up American citizens as well as conducting widespread spying on ordinary residents. (As used in the Hawash case, the "material witness rule" allows federal agents to hold anyone they suspect may have ties to terrorism. Attorneys have speculated that a $10,000 contribution from Hawash to the Global Relief Foundation, an Islamic charity, may be his alleged terrorist tie.)

Fidanque says these detentions are not just flash-in-the-pan violations of the constitution. "They want to make these measures permanent. The stakes are very high."

In a few cases, civil rights attorneys have been fighting back. A New York judge ruled that the detention of a Jordanian student in a case similar to Hawash's was illegal. But Fidanque cautions against optimism. "We don't even hear about most of these detention cases because not everybody has the well-connected friends of Mike [Hawash] and most aren't U.S. citizens. We're very concerned about the abuse of the material witness law. The government is essentially using it to round people up."

On another front in the battle over civil liberties, last Saturday a motley group of about 200 people gathered on the Central Library steps to protest the USA Patriot Act. Federal agents may not be arresting loved ones under the Patriot Act yet, but according to the demonstrators, they are sneaking into Americans' lives and being just as intrusive as if they had kicked down the front door. It was the first demonstration in Portland that focused on the USA Patriot Act.

The brainchild of Ashcroft, the USA Patriot Act was conceived in the wake of September 11. The Act allows federal agents to tap phone lines without warrants and to access student records without permission. It also expanded the FBI and law enforcement's authority to personal records, including library circulation information. The American Library Association says the Patriot Act violates state library confidentiality laws protecting circulation records and is considering legal action.

Under the temporary 2001 law, government agencies can monitor people's reading habits. Moreover, librarians are legally obligated to comply; a "gag clause" of the Patriot Act prohibits a librarian from even alerting a patron if she is being monitored, under penalty of arrest.

The crowd listened to several speeches before people swarmed inside the library to check out books the government might consider contraband--a range from Edward Said political theory to French language instruction books.

"If they want to know what people in Portland are reading, I want them to find we're all reading exactly the wrong things," says Douglas Lain, a Portland Peaceful Response organizer. "How dare they ask what kinds of books we're reading?"

On Friday, April 18, outspoken human rights attorney Lynne Stewart will speak about Ashcroft and the USA Patriot Act at PSU, Smith Center (1825 SW Broadway), Room 101, 7:30 pm. After helping with the legal defense of several Muslims, Stewart was indicted under the Patriot Act for aiding terrorists; she faces 40 years in prison. Ashcroft flew to New York City to personally announce her indictment. Donations of $5-10 are requested for her legal defense.