The Senate passed the Homeland Security Act today, clearing the way for the act to go to President Bush.
With attention largely focused on the adequacy of civil service protections in the Homeland Security Act, several of the massive bill’s provisions that increase government secrecy and reduce accountability have been virtually ignored. The new 170,000 employee agency could potentially menace the civil rights and liberties of all Americans in the execution of its mission, People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas said today.
“There is no doubt that America must boldly address the need to protect our nation from the threat of terrorism. However, as with the USA Patriot Act, this bill does so before the government has sufficiently examined what failures led to the terrorist attacks, an effort that is only now beginning. When instituting the largest government reorganization in fifty years, the needs of Congress, citizens, and the press for information about the agency’s operations and findings should be protected and strengthened. Instead, this bill weakens accountability and openness, potentially creating a secretive and virtually unchecked executive agency,” Neas said.
People For the American Way supported an earlier proposal by Harvard Law School professor Christopher Edley and others to create a deputy inspector general within the Department of Homeland Security to focus solely on the new agency’s impact on civil rights and liberties. Investigations by this official would have served as a critical check on the sprawling new department’s weak protections for these fundamental freedoms. No such proposal is in the final legislation.
The new agency will be responsible for border security, travel safety, and counter-terrorism investigations, including using public and private information to create a broad database of the American populace. With racial profiling and wide-ranging ‘no-fly’ lists already being used by the Transportation Safety Administration to restrict air travel, hundreds of civil right abuses already have been documented.
“There is a significant threat that this new department will abuse civil rights and infringe on civil liberties. Unfortunately, opportunities to attack the legitimate rights of Americans are widespread in our new reality, from harassing immigrants to the collection of massive quantities of data on all Americans, innocent and otherwise,” Neas said. “Without vigilant oversight by Congress and accountability to U.S. citizens, the Department of Homeland Security has the potential to seriously impact freedom in America.”
Several provisions in the current version of the Homeland Security Act (HR 5710) are cause for concern:
“The creation of a Department of Homeland Security represents an opportunity to meet this new challenge with flexible, powerful protections for our diverse, modern nation,” Neas said. “Unfortunately, as with this administration’s maneuvers in creating the USA Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act includes many provisions which should be opposed because they are contrary to the interests — and threatening to the freedom — of the American people.”