Now, here’s what the deal’s supposed to be: In exchange for greater security you give up certain rights. At least, that’s what most Americans tell pollsters they want in the wake of September 11. But if the Homeland Security Act is any indication, under George W. Bush the deal they’re getting is: You give up more rights for what may be less security.
The law, which the President signed on November 25, creates a new Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to coordinate agencies that deal with terrorism. But that’s way down the road. “It’s going to take years in order to get this department fully integrated,” said David Walker, comptroller of the General Accounting Office. And it does nothing to improve intelligence sharing between the FBI and the CIA.
The law already has a checkered provenance. Originally, it was the Democrats’ idea, promoted by Senator Joseph Lieberman. While hearings were being held, the White House, fearing it would be left holding the bag for 9/11 intelligence failures, rammed its own version through the House in time to bash Democratic senatorial candidates in the recent election.
When the lame-duck Senate passed it, Bush’s thirty-two-page proposal had bloated into a 500-page legislative sausage marbled with pork fat. There was a provision repealing a ban on awarding homeland security contracts to corporations with offshore tax havens and another exempting drug-makers from lawsuits on vaccines, intended to shield Eli Lilly from a rash of suits involving a mercury additive it once made for child vaccines and that was suspected of causing neurological damage or autism.
There are also provisions harmful to the health of our liberties:
§ Privacy rights. The Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, under Adm. John Poindexter, shady architect of the secretive Iran/contra plot, would unleash federal snoops to electronically rifle your e-mail and personal data–on top of the Justice Department’s expanded power to tap your phones.
§ Secrecy. Another corporate-friendly provision exempts from the Freedom of Information Act “critical infrastructure” information that private companies submit to the government, and criminalizes whistleblowers. Thus, corporations can cover up health or safety hazards or immunize themselves from lawsuits by filing such information with the government.
§ Worker rights. The law strips the 170,000 employees of the Homeland Security Department of civil service protections and union bargaining rights. Not only does this open the way for the return of the spoils system, it sets a precedent for busting government employee unions. Coupled with the Administration’s recently announced plan to privatize half the federal work force by turning over more than 800,000 jobs to private contractors, the possibilities for exploiting the civil service for payoffs to big corporate donors are multifold.
The 9/11 families’ disgust with the cynicism that made this law a corporate playground could be a catalyst for a reaction against it. Popular furor killed the notorious TIPS informant program, and Congressional civil libertarians from both parties, like Russell Feingold and the other eight senators who voted against the law, could galvanize opposition to the noxious TIA (departing Dick Armey has already called it unauthorized) and similar provisions.