Ask, Don't Tell | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Ask, Don't Tell

Government tries to keep secrets even from itself

Thanks to new "homeland security" measures taken after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the government isn't just gaining new power to discover your secrets; it is working harder to conceal secrets of its own. And that's doubly dangerous, because "A democracy can't work if the public doesn't know what its government is up to."

So warned Timothy Edgar at a June 7 speech to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, whose June 5-8 convention at the Downtown Hilton was hosted by Pittsburgh City Paper.

After the terror attacks, Congress passed the "USA PATRIOT Act," which gave government expanded police powers -- powers many critics contended could infringe on civil rights. Edgar, the legislative counsel for the national American Civil Liberties Union, noted that some of these critics have already been proven right. The government has reportedly been using its power to subpoena libraries and bookstores for information about book requests. And a recent Justice Department report conceded that after 9/11, nearly 800 illegal immigrants were detained in maximum-security cells for more than two months -- without ever being charged for terrorism.

Such excesses may be just the beginning; proposed legislation being cooked up in the Justice Department may mean "the death penalty & for some kinds of protest activity," Edgar contended. The PATRIOT Act defines a terrorist act merely as one that is dangerous, violates criminal law and intends to influence the government, he later noted. "That could apply to a lot of protest tactics used by more extreme groups" including some domestic environmentalist movements, he told City Paper.

Meanwhile, Edgar said, the government insists on its own privacy rights even as it denies them to citizens. Federal officials have always been jealous of their secrets (Edgar says the oldest classified document in the government's possession is "a recipe for invisible ink from 1903"). But access to once-public documents -- like documentation about hazardous chemicals stored at industrial sites -- is becoming increasingly restricted. Government is also keeping private just how much it is violating your privacy: "They have not told us how many library records [they have] looked at," Edgar said.

That doesn't just keep the public in the dark, Edgar contended. "It affects the government's ability to share information with itself" -- even though agencies' failure to share information about terrorist conspiracies among themselves is cited as a leading intelligence shortcoming on 9/11.

But Edgar says that Justice Department overreaching may provide momentum for civil libertarians fighting the new laws. Segments of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" are working with Edgar to call attention to, and overturn, many of these new powers. These groups may trust the Bush administration with bolstered PATRIOT Act powers, but recognize Bush won't always be the guy using them. As Edgar put it, "The four most frightening words to some of those red-blooded conservatives in Washington are 'Attorney General Hillary Clinton.'"