Tom Zirpoli: Bills aims to restore, protect rights

I wonder how many Americans know that the U.S. Military can detain American citizens for an indefinite amount of time without due process protections.

One might think that holding someone in prison indefinitely would have to be ordered by a court of law, but you would be wrong.

As I've said before in this column, since 9/11 Americans have given up their rights in an effort to increase their security, only to lose their rights and security.

The authorization is outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act. While President Barack Obama has signed the NDAA each of his four years as president, he disagrees with the indefinite detention of Americans and has signed a statement stating that he would not use the authority.

Finally, last week, a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate stated that the practice of indefinite military detention of Americans is wrong and should stop.

In discussing an amendment to the NDAA of 2013, Senate Democrat Dianne Feinstein stated that, "I believe that the time has come now to end this legal ambiguity. The federal government experimented with indefinite detention of U.S. citizens during World War II, a mistake we now recognize as a betrayal of our core values. Let's not repeat it."

The amendment says: "An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States apprehended in the United States, unless an Act of Congress expressly authorizes such detention."

The amendment was approved by the Senate committee by a vote of 67 to 29, but it is sad to think that Congress needs to pass a law stating what is clearly already outlined in the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Civil rights groups do not believe the amendment goes far enough. First, it secures due process rights only to Americans and not to others currently under detention. Second, the statement "unless an Act of Congress expressly authorizes such detention" within the amendment seems to give Congress permission to violate the Constitution when they want.

A key supporter of the amendment, Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, stated that if Americans give up a basic constitutional right to trial, the terrorists have won.

However, the House of Representatives has not agreed to support the amendment to the NDAA and its outcome is yet to be determined.

In a second congressional effort to protect our civil rights, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently voted to move to the full Senate a bill that would force government agents to secure search warrants before spying on our email messages.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont stated that this bill was a step toward beating back the "growing and unwelcome intrusion into our private life in cyberspace."

Many Americans may be surprised to learn that their email can be accessed without a search warrant. Even non-email content such as pictures, stored in the cloud, according to Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union, is "largely accessible without a warrant."

The Leahy bill would protect all emails, regardless of where they are stored.

But this bill still needs to be approved by the full Senate and House, where pressure by law enforcement lobbyists are trying to protect the easy access to our emails.

Interestingly, the Leahy bill will not protect Americans when sending emails to someone living in another country.

These emails are monitored by the CIA and other intelligence agencies and this practice is protected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Protecting the privacy of our domestic emails, however, is at least a start and a step in the right direction.

While the media have focused almost all of our attention lately on the fiscal cliff, Americans need to pay attention to these other, even more important issues, related to our civil liberties.

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