Can Broadened “Counterterrorism” Rules Open Door to Indefinitely Detaining Peaceful Protesters?

A lot has been written recently about the recent militarization of US police forces. The impression is inescapable in an atmosphere saturated with imagery of Occupy protesters being bullied by domestic police who wield militarized weaponry, clad in what used to be thought of as riot gear, but is now a de rigueur feature of official responses to things that do not resemble nor threaten to become riots. It appears this militarization comes partly courtesy unprecedented and legally dubious collaboration between civilian police and the CIA. According to The Huffington Post:

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department has become one of the nation's most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government, an Associated Press investigation has found.

These operations have benefited from unprecedented help from the CIA, a partnership that has blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying.

The department has dispatched undercover officers, known as “rakers,” into minority neighborhoods as part of a human mapping program, according to officials directly involved in the program. They've monitored daily life in bookstores, bars, cafes and nightclubs. Police have also used informants, known as “mosque crawlers,” to monitor sermons, even when there's no evidence of wrongdoing.

So much of what cops have been training to confront for the last decade has been the threat of low-scale, low-intel urban terror plots that they have brandished that training on nonviolent civilians who constitute a PR threat to the banks, not an explosive one.

And it's not just the rank-and-file police officers either. Police forces have even brought out the terrorism experts to survey and harass Occupy Wall Street. As I reported the day of the protesters' eviction from Zuccotti Park:

In the smallest hours of the morning, with no warning or apparent provocation, hundreds of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers, some from the department's counterterrorism unit, many in riot gear, demolished thousands of dollars of private property, including a 5,000-volume library; beat and arrested a large number of peacefully protesting citizens, including credentialed journalists and democratically elected public officials; and in the process, violated not just the First and Fourth Amendments to the US Constitution, a document they are sworn to uphold, but also a court injunction.

News broke this week that City of London police distributed a letter cautioning businesses to beware of terrorism, listing Occupy LSX alongside al-Qaeda as a threat. It is outrageous to equate nonviolent, politically principled civil disobedience with violent nihilistic extremism, an injustice not least to the families of victims of actual terrorism. But the issue here goes beyond that outrage; there is actual material danger to dissidents if the occupiers-as-terrorists mythos grows too much.

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In passing the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress, in the words of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has just voted to, “authorize the military to go literally anywhere in the world to imprison civilians – even American citizens in the United States itself – without charge or trial.” The ACLU calls it what it is: “Prison based on suspicion alone.” The vote on the Udall Amendment, which would have forbidden the indefinite detention of US civilians, was defeated by a vote of 60-38 in the Senate, including all but three of the senators from the party that's constantly pretending to be anxious over an intrusively big government.

The Republicans who argued against the measure on the floor of the Senate naturally attributed their effective support for the abolition of the Fourth Amendment to the threat posed by terrorism. The White House has threatened to veto the NDAA, but not because the detention policies grant too much power to law enforcement – instead, because they grant too little:

In their current form, some of these provisions disrupt the Executive branch's ability to enforce the law and impose unwise and unwarranted restrictions on the U.S. Government's ability to aggressively combat international terrorism …

The problem is, the Fourth Amendment is the precondition for the First Amendment. If a person can be detained without a charge leveled, then a person can be detained without a crime even alleged to have been committed – including for confrontational, peaceable assembly. The more frequent the insinuation, either through communiqués or direct treatment, that occupiers constitute a terrorist threat, the more worried dissident citizens are right to grow that they'll be the targets of rights abridgment designed to stamp out terrorism. Muslim members of Occupy Wall Street have already noted their targeting for special interrogation and scrutiny at Occupy events.

People are quite right to be alarmed by the picture this paints. While no one has any indication that the government will begin indefinitely imprisoning nonviolent dissenters, the mere loss of impediments is reason enough to prick up one's ears with suspicion. After all, Rep. Jerrold Nadler's (D-New York) letter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) hinted at the facilitation of an unaccountable police state in his mention of “unlawful surveillance of individuals” involved in Occupy Wall Street, whose Liberty Plaza Park is in Nadler's district.

Meanwhile, the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College released a paper today called “$29,000,000,000,000: A Detailed Look at the Fed's Bailout by Funding Facility and Recipient.” [PDF] That's awfully close to half of gross world product, a figure which sat at $63.17 trillion last year. And no one considers that terrorism.