The Star Chamber Is Back

Are George Bush and Tony Blair building democracy in the Middle East or police states at home?

There is no sign of democracy in Iraq. Bush has installed a puppet government backed up by U.S. military force. America’s hamhanded occupation has resulted in large civilian casualties, prison tortures and a breakdown in public order.

Domestic police states, however, are in evidence in the U.S. and UK.

During the cold war, Western freedoms were favorably compared to the Soviet national identity card, which increased secret police efficiency.

Today, UK Home Secretary David Blunkett says Englishmen are to be issued with national identity cards. This prompted UK Information Commissioner Richard Thomas to remark that the UK is "sleepwalking into a surveillance society."

In the U.S. there are plans for identity cards complete with retina scans and DNA information.

The biggest threat to freedom, however, is the full-scale assault on what 18th century English jurist William Blackstone called "the Rights of Englishmen" and Americans know as civil liberties.

President George Bush and his Attorney General, John Ashcroft, have resurrected the "Star Chamber," made infamous by the Stuart kings in the 17th century for arbitrary, secret proceedings with no right of appeal.

Today, American citizens can be arrested and held in secret indefinitely without being charged.

The Bush administration has sacrificed the Bill of Rights to its "war on terror." As Elaine Cassel conclusively demonstrates in her forthcoming book, The War on Civil Liberties (Lawrence Hill Books), the "war on terror" is in truth a war on the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth amendments to the Constitution.

Cassel shows that Bush and Ashcroft have mobilized patriotism against the Constitution.

The coup, Cassel writes, "came when some staffer dreamed up the acronym USA PATRIOT (United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act for a law that makes a mockery of constitutional protections. To be against the PATRIOT Act makes one unpatriotic."

The PATRIOT Act defines terrorism so broadly that any act of protest or civil disobedience can be construed as "terrorism," a charge for which the government can hold a person indefinitely. Thus, the PATRIOT Act permits punishment without conviction.

If you think you still live in a free society, consider:

The PATRIOT Act overturns the attorney-client privilege, and attorneys who aggressively defend their clients can be indicted for "aiding and abetting terrorism."

Internet service providers who move to quash government surveillance of their customers can be charged with "obstructing justice."

Parents who object to airport security personnel dragging away a frightened child to be searched can be arrested for "obstructing a federal law enforcement officer."

According to Cassel, regulations have been issued that permit federal prosecutors to override federal judges – a gross breach of the separation of powers and a classic tool of 20th century police states.

Indeed, Cassel herself might be subject to arrest "for aiding and abetting terrorists." Here is what Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."

Cassel dryly notes that September 11 was caused by intelligence failures, not by civil liberties. Yet, the government’s response was to attack civil liberties.

All of the police state measures were waiting on the shelf. September 11 was an excuse to grab unconstitutional power – just as the Reichstag fire was for Hitler.

Cassel says the fate of our free society rests with the judiciary. In her chapter, "The War in the Courts," she assesses whether courts are up to the challenge. Some are and some are not. Ironically, it is the conservative Republican judges who go along with the police state measures. So much for the old saw that we need a Republican president to save us from liberal judges.

At the time Cassel’s book went to press, the Supreme Court had yet to rule whether the government can indefinitely hold a person without charging him and bringing him to trial.

After the Padilla and Hamdi decisions, Cassel concludes that the Court did not consent to being read out of the picture, but did nothing effective to defend civil liberties. Civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate concurs.

Where do matters stand? We are all in Abu Ghraib now. If the government declares you "an enemy combatant" or a "material witness" you have no rights. The government can hold you forever without charges or until you admit to some offense in order to escape from isolation and from psychological and perhaps physical torture.

I would rather take my chances with terrorists.

Cassel discusses specific cases, including cases of "guilt by association." She names names and holds accountable the brown shirts in our government. She describes absurd regulations under which innocent American citizens can be convicted of terrorism.

In a chapter on grass roots resistance, Cassel notes that more than 250 counties and municipalities in 28 states, plus two entire states, representing 43 million Americans, have passed resolutions criticizing the PATRIOT Act or forbidding local law enforcement from cooperating with the Bush administration’s attack on the U.S. Constitution.

After the horrors Cassel describes, it is refreshing that there are still 43 million Americans who can recognize tyranny when they see it.

Author: Paul Craig Roberts

Paul Craig Roberts wrote the Kemp-Roth bill and was assistant secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was associate editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and contributing editor of National Review. He is author or co-author of eight books, including The Supply-Side Revolution (Harvard University Press). He has held numerous academic appointments, including the William E. Simon chair in political economy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, and senior research fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has contributed to numerous scholarly journals and testified before Congress on 30 occasions. He has been awarded the U.S. Treasury's Meritorious Service Award and the French Legion of Honor. He was a reviewer for the Journal of Political Economy under editor Robert Mundell.