Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Demonstrators As Felons?

Even Fox News is starting to pay attention to the implications of the Bush-Cheney coup. I don’t know why that is, other than the libertarian Right is starting to squawk. And, of course, it could technically be used against, say, anti-abortion demonstrators.
But, gee, won’t those new facilities I mentioned in my last post, come in handy?

New Patriot Act Provision Creates Tighter Barrier to Officials at Public Events
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

By Kelley Beaucar Vlahos

WASHINGTON — A new provision tucked into the Patriot Act bill now before Congress would allow authorities to haul demonstrators at any "special event of national significance" away to jail on felony charges if they are caught breaching a security perimeter.

Sen. Arlen Specter , R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored the measure, which would extend the authority of the Secret Service to allow agents to arrest people who willingly or knowingly enter a restricted area at an event, even if the president or other official normally protected by the Secret Service isn't in attendance at the time.

The measure has civil libertarians protesting what they say is yet another power grab for the executive branch and one more loss for free speech.

"It's definitely problematic and chilling," said Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy at the American Civil Liberties Union , which has written letters to the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, pointing out that the provision wasn't subject to hearings or open debate.

Some conservatives say they too are troubled by the measure.

"It concerns me greatly," said Bob Barr, former U.S. prosecutor and Republican representative from Georgia. "It clearly raises serious concerns about First Amendment rights."


Under current law, the Secret Service can arrest anyone for breaching restricted areas where the president or a protected official is or will be visiting, but the new provision would allow such arrests even after those VIPs have left the premises of any designated "special event of national significance." The provision would increase the maximum penalty for such an infraction from six months to one year in jail.

In a post-Sept. 11 world many non-political events have been designated National Special Security Events and would rise to the higher status. Examples of possible NSSEs are the Olympics or the Super Bowl. In 2004, the presidential inaugural balls and President Ronald Reagan's June funeral procession in Washington, D.C., were designated NSSEs.

According to government sources with knowledge of the legislation, Secret Service protection and law enforcement authority would extend beyond protecting a specific person, rather the event itself would become the "protectee."

Currently, non-violent demonstrators who enter restricted areas at such events previously would be arrested and charged by local law enforcement with simple trespassing, said Graves. Under the provision included in the new law, they will be charged with felonies by the Secret Service.

Last year, three ticket-holding audience members at one of the president's Social Security events in Denver, Colo., were apprehended by a man who they said identified himself as Secret Service. The three were forced away from the event because of an anti-war sticker on the driver's car.

"[The administration] has certainly demonstrated a desire to have carefully-controlled events," said Graves.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based clearinghouse for domestic and international security information, said he "could certainly understand why the Secret Service would want that legal authority," given the enormous burden of making venues safe for VIPs today.

"However, I think many people have concluded that the way it is being used has nothing to do with protecting the president from Usama bin Laden and everything to do with suppressing dissent and making sure the protesters don't get on TV," Pike said.

Bush is not the first president to flex his authority in this area, said Kopel, who pointed out that beginning with Reagan, presidents have created a larger security bubble and greater distance between themselves and dissenters at public events. The 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States just intensified the situation, he said.

"I think the concerns about free speech in areas where the president is speaking long pre-date Bush. They were an issue in the Clinton administration, the first Bush administration and began as an issue during Reagan," Kopel said. "I do think the ACLU has legitimate concerns about the breadth of the new language and how it could be applied."

Graves points out that conservative "pro-life" groups will be the target of the new provisions, too, a scenario that could raise the concerns for those who are typically critical of the ACLU, which she said is necessarily concerned about other provisions in the bill that impinge on civil liberties.

House and Senate leaders, who return to Capitol Hill this week, are trying to renew the Patriot Act by Friday. Democrats and four Republicans in the Senate who filibustered a final vote in December after raising concerns about preserving civil liberties instituted a short-term extension of the previous bill, which was set to expire on Dec. 31.

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