Homeland seizures border on fascism
Are you one of those who think as long as you know you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear? If you are, then the following news won't bother you. But it will trouble the rest of us.
A growing number of international travelers have complained about missing laptops, cell phones and other digital devices that wound up being confiscated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Based on a recent report, as part of our border search policy these agencies have the right to take any electronic equipment from anyone, including U.S. citizens, without reasonable suspicion, without stated cause, without notification. They can take a traveler's laptop and hold it indefinitely. Maybe they'll return it to its rightful owner. Maybe they won't.
DHS says the policies have been in place for some time and are reasonable and necessary to prevent terrorism. The policies state that officers may "detain" laptops "for a reasonable period of time" to "review and analyze information." This may take place "absent individualized suspicion."
The policies cover "any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form," including hard drives, flash drives, cell phones, iPods, pagers, beepers and video and audio tapes. They also cover "all papers and other written documentation," including books, pamphlets and "written materials" commonly referred to as "pocket trash."
In April, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld the government's power to conduct searches of an international traveler's laptop without suspicion of wrongdoing.
Business travelers and nonprofit groups have complained about having their property taken and returned months later, if ever. They are saying these searches are invasive and a violation of individual property rights.
I don't know about you, but this policy makes me fear something other than terrorists.
In fact, despite the surface reference to fighting terrorism, other crimes are included in this mix. The policy document states that being able to examine documents and electronic devices is crucial for "detecting information concerning terrorism, narcotics smuggling ... contraband including child pornography, and other import or export control laws."
As I recall, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, and every other member of the federal government, takes an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. We hold the Constitution in such high esteem we will release murderers whose rights have been violated by the court system.
Yet, we are to trust the word of those in authority who may be in the process of violating the Constitution to protect import/export laws? Voiding the general public's right to privacy is worth catching a narcotics smuggler?
This is an overt subversion of the Fourth Amendment provision against warrantless search and seizure. When agents of the Border Patrol or Customs, under the authority of DHS can seize your personal property without cause, that violates the Constitution. One does not need to be a constitutional scholar to understand this.
The Department of Homeland Security is first and foremost a bureaucracy. The normal impulse of bureaucracy is to seek an expansion of its size and scope. As bureaucrats supremely confident in their mission, and capable of redefining and expanding their powers, they will find a way to expand the list of "searchables" as they already have.
First, in looking for terrorists, then in looking for drug dealers and child pornographers. Then for someone breaking our import/export laws. Next year, they will surely find justifications for expanding that list. Few will openly challenge their authority. Fewer will seek to revoke and reverse it. Such courage is in short supply.
This kind of policy, done in the name of keeping us safe, is moving us from the neo-cons to the neo-fascists.
When I say fascism, think of World War II, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Even Saddam's Iraq. Think of uniformed officers with the power to do anything to anyone in the name of the government. The only "constitution" they followed were the orders of their high command. It meant living without civil liberties. They were at the mercy of whomever was knocking at their door.
I'd rather see our country united after another terrorist attack, more determined than ever to wipe them out at their sources, than picked apart like a Christmas turkey, piece by piece, from within, our rights devoured by creatures in suits whose values bear no resemblance to what we'd associate with America.
We can only hope that the few voices in Congress, notably U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold who is taking this on, and the next president will rein in DHS. I wonder, though, if either Barack Obama or John McCain are strong enough to put aside the protests of the bureaucracy and listen to the voices of the people and the spirits of the Founding Fathers.
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States is not just an ideal for school children. It's the law of the land. Read it. Remember it if your laptop is seized.
Mike Shelton is a Yuma resident and guest columnist for The Sun. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.