Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Thought Crime Law

originally published in the Hartford Advocate January 3, 2008

The Thought Crime Law
All of Connecticut's Congresspersons signed the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, and none of them want to talk about it. So we called Dennis Kucinich, who read the bill and wouldn't sign it.

By Jennifer Abel

Full disclosure: according to a staff member from the office of Hartford’s own Congressman John Larson, this article is “not a good story.” It wasn’t worth our time to write it, nor the Congressman’s time to discuss it, and probably not worth your time to read it either. Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

Worthwhile or not, the story’s about a bill that recently passed the House of Representatives and looks on track to pass the Senate and be signed into law. Over 98 percent of Congressmen, including all five from Connecticut, voted in favor of it (the final count was 404 to 6), and when a bill passes with such a high majority it’s usually easy to find among that 98 percent a few Congressmen willing to go on the record to say “I voted for this incredibly important bill because blah blah blah.”

Not this time. No one who voted for the bill wants to talk about it. And when we called Larson’s D.C. office hoping to chat, staff member Emily Barocas said: “I used to be a journalist — I was on NPR — so I know where you’re coming from. I know what it’s like to want to get that big scoop, but this isn’t it … I know a good story from a bad story. This isn’t a good story.”

Maybe not. But we’d already spoken to Ohio Congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, who’d told us he voted against the bill because it’s “unconstitutional” and “a thought-crime bill.” And a representative of Hawaii, Congressman Neil Abercrombie said his boss voted no because he felt the bill gave law enforcement too much power, and didn’t sufficiently protect individual rights.

So without mentioning any names to Barocas, we thanked her for the advice but said that since we’d already been in touch with 33 percent of all Congressmen who’d voted against the bill, we’d just go ahead and write about it anyway.

What is this Bill of Mystery, that Congresspeople will vote for yet not discuss? It’s called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, also known as HR 1955, and one of the first things it says is that “Congress finds … The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to ... terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.”

The bill also says that “preventing the potential rise” of individual domestic terrorists like Tim McVeigh “cannot be easily accomplished solely through traditional federal intelligence or law enforcement efforts.”

Fine. The Internet helps terrorists and fighting terrorism is hard. So what does the bill plan to do about this?

“You should ask Representative [Jane] Harman of California,” Barocas said when we asked. “She wrote the bill, not Congressman Larson. He wasn’t even a co-sponsor.”

Good idea, except Harman never returned calls seeking comment. (Nor did anyone from the offices of the other four members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation: representatives Chris Shays, Chris Murphy, Joe Courtney and Rosa Delauro.) Besides, we said to Barocas, since the Congressman voted for the bill he must have felt it worthwhile legislation. Perhaps he could tell us why?

“You ask what this bill allows [law enforcement to do] … the answer is nothing,” Barocas said. “It creates a grant communities can use to stem the tide of homegrown terrorism.”

That caught us by surprise, since we never realized there was a tide of homegrown terrorism threatening to wash over the country. Neither did Texas representative (and GOP presidential candidate) Ron Paul. He was absent the day of the House vote, but in a speech against the bill, Paul called it “an unwise and dangerous solution in search of a real problem. Previous acts of ideologically-motivated violence, though rare, have been resolved successfully using law enforcement techniques, existing laws against violence, and our court system.”

Which goes back to the question, “What does this bill allow law enforcement to do about terrorism that it couldn’t do before?” But Barocas didn’t consider the question worth passing on to her boss. “I just fail to see how having the Congressman answer these questions would be necessary … the more you study this bill the more you realize there’s nothing sinister here. I’ve been a journalist and I know there’s just no story here.”

Congressman and Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich must’ve been unaware of the bill’s lack of storyness when he agreed to talk to us about it. When we asked why he voted it down, we expected him to say something pithy about the importance of civil liberties.

Instead, Kucinich said in a how-obvious tone of voice, “I voted against [the bill] because I read it, which is why I voted against the PATRIOT Act … you’d be surprised how many bills pass because people don’t have time to read it [before voting]. That’s what happens when you’ve got bills flying through the air like confetti at a special-interest parade.”

Or when Congressmen feel that writers and co-sponsors are the only ones who can be expected to know what a given bill says. At any rate, Kucinich wasn’t the only Congressman to compare HR 1955 to the PATRIOT Act; Connecticut’s Chris Shays did as well. In a press release urging his fellow legislators to vote for the bill, Shays wrote: “[Bunch of stuff about the dangers of terrorism.] Then came Sept. 11, and we did wake up somewhat. We reorganized our government and created the Department of Homeland Security. We passed the PATRIOT Act … I think it is absolutely important we pass this legislation.”

But explaining why it’s so important was something the Congressman couldn’t squeeze into his schedule.

The bill says nothing explicitly ominous. It even specifies that “The Department of Homeland Security’s efforts … shall not violate the constitutional rights, civil rights or civil liberties of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents.” So what’s the problem?

“Essentially,” said Kucinich, “the bill moves to criminalize thought by giving an overly broad view of the threat of homegrown terrorism.” Hence the problem: not that the bill threatens anything specific, but that it’s far too vague.

Dave Helfort, a spokesman for Congressman Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, explained why his boss voted against the bill: “After looking it over, he just had a problem with the possibility that it went too far, opened the door to possible violations of privacy … [Abercrombie is] very sensitive to the possibility of giving too much power to law enforcement out of fear and overreaction.”

HR 1955 is written in the vague and eye-glazing bureaucratic language common to government documents (never “help” when you can “facilitate”), and sounds innocuous if you don’t read too closely.

“Violent radicalization,” one of the threats the bill seeks to curb, is defined there as “the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically-based violence to advance political, religious or social change.”

Acts of violence are already illegal, whether stemming from extreme beliefs or not. But “adopting” or “promoting” beliefs is supposed to be covered by the first amendment, which Kucinich said “protects freedom of speech, which should also include freedom of thought — thought usually precedes speech, unless you’re talking about Washington — this undercuts the first amendment, [because] lines like ‘ideologically based’ … says government should police ideas, not conduct.”

Or maybe he’s just being paranoid, to assume that our government, in the name of fighting terrorism, might step on civil liberties in the process.

Emily Barocas stopped taking our calls once it became obvious she wouldn’t dissuade us from writing this non-story. We made one last round of calls to Connecticut’s Congressional delegation in hopes of getting some pro-bill quotes to write here. But the staffers who returned our calls would only speak off the record, and said pretty much the same as Barocas: not that they’d ever worked for NPR, but they just couldn’t understand why we’d bother writing a story about this incredibly minor and unimportant bill.