Bigger Brother?

Mon Aug. 25, 2003 3:00 AM EDT


Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and four of his Republican cronies are out to make the word "narco-terrorism" a household term. Dan Eggen of the Washington Post reports that a draft of the Vital Interdiction of Criminal Terrorist Organizations Act (that's VICTORY as an acronym) would make broad changes to drug trafficking laws, allow for expanded FBI and local police wiretapping, and clamp down on a traditional Middle Eastern form of money transfer. According to Ryan Singel at Wired News, a draft of the bill defines narco-terrorism as "the crime of selling, distributing or manufacturing a controlled substance with the intent of helping a terrorist group." Essentially, the Victory Act would make it easier for Ashcroft and his minions to charge drug offenders with aiding terrorists, and could potentially freeze the assets of a suspected offender. Though Hatch's spokespersons refused to comment on the legislation, she did acknowledge the push to investigate the drug-terrorism link, stating that Hatch "is continuing to look at all legislative options for combating the nexus between drug trafficking and terrorism."

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Aside from what now seems to be a routine erosion of "innocent until proven guilty," the Victory legislation also proposes some other new (and improved!) tactics to bolster national security and the war on terrorism. The essence of the bill serves to expand the power of FBI and local police forces while disempowering local judges and courts. Singel reports that the FBI could get a wiretap order on any wireless device from any district court in the country. And in court, the "victory" would most likely lie with the feds or the five-o: in the case of illegal wiretapping, the legislation forces defendants to prove that police broke the law intentionally.

Critics are also concerned about Victory's attempt to revive what some say is an outdated strategy of the war on drugs, Singel reports:

"'This bill struck me as a way to link a dying concept of how to fight the drug war to other issues that still have public support, like the war on terrorism,' said Ryan King, a research associate at the Sentencing Project. 'It's counter to what we have seen in the last few years, at least state-wise, where states are turning to drug treatment and alternative sentencing options. '

'If the Justice Department is trying to link terrorism to high-level drug dealing, why turn around then and try to punish street-level dealers?' asked King."

King has a point -- it's difficult to understand some of the "counter-terrorism" tactics the bill employs. "Victory" would mean that penalties for selling drugs to people under the age of 21 would increase, and anyone, even a first-time offender, convicted of possession of more than 250 amphetamine pills would automatically be sentenced to 200 years in jail. Like the Patriot Act, the Victory act combines a sneak attack on individual rights with the theft of judicial power. According to Mark Allenbaugh of FindLaw, the legislation would "rob the federal judiciary of their discretion to impose just sentences." Sometimes, Allenbaugh writes, judges sentence first-time offenders to less than a minimum mandatory sentence. The Victory Act, like its partner PROTECT Act (an Ashcroft-authored measure surreptitiously placed in Amber Alert legislation), aims to take away a judge's power to decide the terms of a sentence by brandishing an executive sword in the form of mandatory minimum sentences -- some which aren't so minimal.

Aside from the administration picnic's executive vs. judicial tug-o'-war on terrorism, the Cybercast News Service reports that the National Consumer Coalition's Privacy Group fears that the Victory Act would severely infringe on individual privacy rights. According to the group, a section of the bill specifically allows for the subpoena of a long list of consumer records -- everything from bank statements to Internet services.

But perhaps most compelling is the Victory Act's link of hawalas, a traditional form of Middle Eastern banking, to "narco-terrorism." Hawalas are unauthorized banks used in regions of the Middle East where banks are scarce. True, an unauthorized bank is less likely to question an unauthorized source of money. But the bill outlaws hawalas, a move which, while it may cut off the funding of illegal activity in the US, could also cut off the funding of a lot of Arab families who rely on such transactions, as Elaine Cassel of Counterpunch writes:

"Of course, this monetary system is what supports tens of thousands of family members of immigrants and legal aliens, who come to this country, do the work Americans won't do, and send their hard-earned dollars home to families living in abject poverty."
But of course, Hatch, Ashcroft, and cronies would never deliberately support anti-immigrant legislation. Like everything else, "Victory" is truly just a matter of National Security.

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