October 22, 2001

RMS: Police state minus one day and counting

Author: JT Smith

- By Richard Stallman-

If things go according to plan, one day from today many basic legal rights will be abolished in the United States. According to the ACLU, the Uniting and Strengthening America Act of 2001 (S.1510) has been passed in both the Senate and the House; they just have to pass it once more having ironed out some details, and due process of law will be no more. The drafting was hasty in the Senate; the House was in such a rush to pass the bill that most representatives didn't bother to read it (even though some
of them said that it was dangerous).

The page http://www.aclu.org/action/usa107.html gives some basic information about this bill. The ACLU told me that more information is available about this and other post-Sept. 11 bills at
http://www.aclu.org/safeandfree. According to the ACLU, S.1510 would,
among other things:

  • Allow for indefinite detention of non-citizens, denying them the
    chance to defend themselves in court.
  • Expand secret searches.
  • Grant the FBI broad access to sensitive business records about
    individuals without having to show evidence of a crime.
    See http://www.aclu.org/congress/l100801a.html.
  • Allow officials to designate domestic groups as terrorist
    organizations. Membership in such an organization would become a
    deportable offense; see http://www.aclu.org/congress/l100801d.html.

It could also, I have read, be the occasion for confiscation of
property of anyone connected with these organizations. And that
can be used as a mechanism of censorship by intimidation.

Additional power for the FBI worries me, and it should worry you,
because the FBI has a history of abusing its power. In the 1960s, it
conducted a systematic large-scale campaign to undermine political
opposition, using methods that ranged from provocateurs to death
threats to framing of activists. For more information, see

As part of that campaign, the FBI conducted thousands of secret
searches without warrants. This put the FBI in a bad light, because
those searches were against the law. S.1510 would eliminate the
problem by making it easy to authorize secret searches. According to
the ACLU, government agents would be allowed to take away your papers
as well as look at them, but only if they say it was necessary. So if
something vanishes from your house, you won't know if it was a thief
or the government. See http://www.aclu.org/news/2001/n101901b.html.

The bill would also allow officials to designate an organization as
"terrorist" and prohibit any kind of support for it. This worries me
because I am the leader of an organization. The FBI director has
already called Reclaim the Streets "terrorist" (they put on surprise
street parties), so who knows what would not be called "terrorist?"

But it gets worse when you combine this with civil forfeiture.
Government officials would have the power to confiscate your property,
simply by alleging that it has been connected with one of these
"terrorist" organizations. They would not have to charge you with a
crime, and they won't have to prove anything.

Actual confiscation is bad enough, but as Go players know, the threat
is more powerful than the act. If the government can confiscate your
property, it can use the threat of confiscation to enforce whatever
demands it wishes to make.

Censorship by decree appears to have begun already in anticipation of
the bill's passage. Last week I read that a Web site containing old
WBAI radio broadcasts had been shut down because the Office of
Homeland Security had told the ISP to cut them off. The ISP told the
site's operator that it had been threatened with confiscation of its
assets if it did not obey. This information came with a reference to
the URL http://savewbai.tao.ca, where more information can be

One of the programs on that site, Radio Free Eireann, advocated
removing Northern Ireland from the UK -- a cause which was also
supported by terrorists (or should I say former terrorists, since they
have since entered the Northern Ireland parliament). It is possible
that that weak connection was the basis of the threat. But the issue
is a political one, and many peaceful citizens of Ireland held similar
views. I do not agree with them: Ireland has the same sort of unjust
anti-terrorism laws as the UK, and oppressive laws on divorce and
abortion as well. But if we tolerate censorship of political views
just because we do not support them, we allow tyranny.

Courageous citizens may resist tyranny on principle, but we cannot
expect businesses to do so. And it is hard to carry out any organized
activity, including political opposition, without the services of
business, such as phone lines, meeting halls, printing, and ISPs. One
call from the Office of Homeland Security, and any business will cut
off these services.

For non-citizens of the United States, the bill will present an even more
terrible danger: they could face life-long imprisonment without trial.
The movie A World Apart showed how detention without trial operated
in South Africa under the apartheid system. Its heroine was
imprisoned without charges for 30 days, which the government had the
power to do arbitrarily. At the end of that period, they had to
release her -- for just five minutes, which is how long it took the
police to arrest her again. In the United States, even that occasional five-minute release won't be necessary. If the bill passes, I plan to warn my foreign friends to stay away from the United States.

Little time remains, but if we value our freedom it is worth one more
try to save it. The ACLU says that Congress has received tens of
thousands of phone calls opposing this bill, and hardly any supporting
it, but that legislators feel that they cannot say no to what the FBI
wants. If they get a barrage of phone calls today, it may do
something. The House is shut down, so call your representative's
local office. A fax is good also, but there is no time left for a
letter to arrive. Call your senators as well.

Please call, even if you do not usually call Congress. Ask them to
start over, and this time think carefully about what they are doing!

Copyright 2001 Richard Stallman
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