Are You a Terrorist ?
Media passivity enables rollback of civil liberties
by Rachel Coen
Extra! magazine (FAIR), December 2001
On October 26, George Bush signed into law "anti-terrorism"
legislation that seriously eroded civil liberties in the United
States. Law enforcement's power to conduct surveillance and secret
searches has been vastly increased, legal immigrants may now be
indefinitely detained, and the CIA has been authorized to resume
spying on U.S. citizens. In true Orwellian style, the bill is
called the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001-for Uniting and Strengthening
America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and
Among the sweeping changes implemented by the bill is the
introduction of the broadly defined crime of "domestic terrorism."
Domestic terrorism is now defined in part as any activities that
"involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation
of the criminal laws" and which "appear to be intended"
to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population" or "to
influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion."
The legal definition of "terrorism" is crucial because
the USA PATRIOT act gives law enforcement broad new powers to
be used against "terrorist" individuals and groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union (10/23/01) warns that this
new definition will "sweep in people who engage in acts of
political protest" if those acts could be deemed dangerous
to human life. Actions that damage property or endanger people
were already illegal-reclassifying these offenses as "terrorist"
while removing judicial checks on law enforcement is a recipe
for the political prosecution of dissent.
Also at risk under the new law is anyone who so much as provides
lodging to a "terrorist." If you let an activist sleep
on your couch while they're in town for a protest, and they're
later arrested for some risky civil disobedience, you could be
charged with "harboring a terrorist," a new crime that
can land you in jail for 10 years.
Given that the FBI has tried to tar peaceful U.S. activists
as terrorists well before September 11, such scenarios aren't
far-fetched. Globalization activists in particular have been singled
out for surveillance and infiltration over the last few years.
Last May, in testimony before Congress about the "Threat
of Terrorism to the United States," FBI Director Louis Freeh
named "left-wing extremist groups" such as Reclaim the
Streets-a group that organizes street parties-as "a potential
threat" (In These Times, 8/28/01).
But the legislation's impact will go far beyond "terrorist"
groups, even as broadly as that term is now defined. Among other
things, the ACLU (9/20/01) pointed out that under the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act, the FBI already had the authority
to obtain wiretaps in investigations of terrorism without showing
probable cause. The new law extends this authority to ordinary
criminal cases, effectively removing an important check on the
FBI's domestic surveillance efforts. "This vast expansion
of power," said the ACLU, "goes far beyond anything
necessary to conduct terrorism investigations."
There are, of course, many reasons that the anti-terrorism
legislation was rushed through with so little time for public
debate, but media's complacency certainly didn't help. Mainstream
news outlets did cover the progress of the proposed anti-terror
bills through the House and Senate, but did relatively little
to alert the public to how fundamental and far-reaching the proposed
expansions of law enforcement's powers were, and provided little
information about the nuts and bolts of the legislation.
For a rough indicator of how widely the specific details of
the proposed legislation were reported, FAIR searched transcripts,
wire service stories and major newspapers archived in the Nexis
news database for the key phrase "intimidation or coercion"
(9/11/01-10/11/01). The phrase turned up in only two relevant
news articles (Washington Post, 10/2/01; L1~. Times, 10/2/01)
and in an editorial in support of the legislation (Newsday, 10/3/01).
That this crucial language was so rarely reported suggests that
media for the most part failed to ask the basic question of what
kinds of activities the "anti-terrorism" bill was designed
Coverage was even more scant on the three major networks'
nightly news shows. During the first round of debate over an earlier
version of the legislation, according to a September 27 search
of Nexis, neither CBS Evening News nor NBC Nightly News aired
a single segment exploring the legislation's potential impact.
CBS Evening News (9/25/01) touched on the issue in two sentences,
noting that George Bush had asked Congress "to approve expanded
federal authority to conduct wiretaps and detain suspects,"
and adding that some in Congress "aren't so sure" the
proposal won't violate civil liberties. No further details about
the legislation were provided.
NBC Nightly News (9/21/01) flatly stated that security concerns
will necessitate restrictions on civil liberties, but as of September
27 the show had not so much as mentioned the bill that would create
those restrictions. Introducing a related report about the newly
established Office of Homeland Security, anchor Tom Brokaw said
that the office's name "sounds like something out of a totalitarian
regime," but nonetheless "the attacks proved that something
in America has to change."
NBC's Andrea Mitchell went on to report that after the terrorist
attacks "there will be a cost to our civil liberties,"
bluntly asserting: "The price? Increased surveillance and
inconvenience." The report-which ended by saying that "no
one really knows how much authority the new security czar will
really have"- suggested that to stay safe, the public must
surrender liberties without even pausing to ask which ones.
ABC's World News Tonight (9/25/01) did air one segment about
the proposed anti-terrorism legislation, reporting that it would
"give the government more power to spy on Americans here
at home, monitor Internet use with little oversight from a judge,
lock up immigrants who the government says might be a threat to
national security without presenting evidence."
A few days earlier, however, after reporting poll numbers
indicating that many in the U.S. fear losing their liberties to
"the fight against terror" (9/21/01), World News Tonight
reporter Dean Reynolds managed to conclude just the opposite-that
"right now the calls for action are drowning out the second
thoughts. As one veteran of World War II put it today, if you
have to violate freedom to protect the masses, go ahead and do
More information on the new anti-terrorism law and emerging
civil liberties concerns can be found at the ACLU's special site,
www. aclu. org/safeandfree/