Cities Urge Restraint in Fight Against Terror
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
New York Times - 23 Dec:
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz., Dec. 20 — Nearly two dozen cities around the country have passed resolutions urging federal authorities to respect the civil rights of local citizens when fighting terrorism. Efforts to pass similar measures are under way in more than 60 other places.
While the resolutions are largely symbolic, many of them provide some legal justification for local authorities to resist cooperating in the federal war on terrorism when they deem civil liberties and Constitutional rights are being compromised.
Most of the resolutions have passed in liberal bastions like Boulder, Colo.; Santa Fe, N.M.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Berkeley, Calif., where opposition to government policy is a tradition. But less ideological places have also acted, with more localities considering it, from big cities like Chicago and Tampa, Fla., to smaller ones like Fairbanks, Alaska, and Grants Pass, Ore.
Many communities are getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a grass-roots group in Florence, Mass.
"People are very, very willing and committed to do everything reasonably possible about terrorist threats," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way, a nonprofit group that works for constitutional protections. "But there is a growing concern about the executive branch is handling this, a unilateral assertion of power that, in many instances, intrudes on people's privacy and is carried out in a very secretive manner."
Art Babbott, the City Council member who sponsored the resolution in Flagstaff that passed last week after intense debate, said: "We've been singing the same song in this country for more than 200 years. It's a very good song, and I want to keep singing it. I'm very leery of changing the lyrics."
Supporters of the resolutions say the measures have grown out of a belief that the Patriot Act of 2001, the Homeland Security Act passed this year and a series of executive orders have given the federal government too much muscle in its war against terrorism at the expense of average Americans, especially Muslims. The 2001 act expands government powers in such matters as electronic surveillance, search warrants and detention.
The Homeland Security Act created a cabinet department for national defense.
In most places, the resolutions carry no legal weight, merely affirming the civil rights as federal authorities intensify antiterrorist efforts in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But resolutions passed by some towns like Amherst, Mass., have a sharper tone, going so far as to direct city personnel not to help federal or state officials in activities that could be considered in violation of civil rights or liberties.
The Amherst measure, for example, says, "to the extent legally possible, no town employee shall officially assist or voluntarily cooperate with investigations, interrogations or arrest procedures" that may be judged to violate civil rights or liberties.
The Flagstaff measure, which passed with a City Council vote of 4 to 3, includes a part written so ambiguously that members on each side of the issue said it could give the police department and other city departments a legal basis to delay or even withhold cooperation with higher authorities investigating a terrorist threat or suspicious person. To the four council members who support the measure, that is a good thing.
The three who opposed it predicted that it could have dangerous consequences.
Nancy Talanian, co-director of the Florence group, said conflicts between local and federal authorities had not emerged. However, in Amherst, faculty members at the University of Massachusetts recently protested the Federal Bureau of Investigation's questioning of Musaddak J. Alhabeeb, an Iraqi-born associate professor of economics, over his views of the Bush administration's plans for war against Iraq.
But no conflicts over the new laws should arise, said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Justice Department, insisting that they are constitutional.
"We are still living under the Constitution," Mr. Corallo said, asserting that protection of civil liberties is built into all antiterrorism legislation. "We would have it no other way. Everything we do, particularly in the realm of surveillance, we do with the authority and supervision of courts."
The resolutions already adopted, including another passed last week, in Oakland, Calif., are alike in many ways, reflecting a common fear of government aggression in such areas as wiretaps, search warrants and immigration policy. The resolution passed by the board of commissioners of Alachua County, Fla., among others, warns that "civil liberties are precious and may now be threatened" by the government's new powers.
The Boulder City Council resolution "affirms that any efforts to end terrorism not be waged at the expense of essential civil rights and liberties of the people of Boulder, the United States and the World."
The aldermen of Carrboro, N.C., took a slightly stronger position, with a resolution that requires any visiting federal agents to "work in accordance with the policies and procedures of the Carrboro Police Department and in cooperation with the department."
Efforts in some cities to pass resolutions with stronger language were thwarted by legal advisers who argued that requiring federal authorities to comply with municipal standards would create problems. An early version of the measure passed in Santa Cruz, Calif., sounded much the same as Amherst's but was softened at the urging of the city attorney.
"We didn't want to put our police officers in an untenable position," said Mayor Emily Reilly of Santa Cruz.
The same kind of tug of war occurred in Flagstaff, where Mr. Babbott, the resolution sponsor, argued for the kind of language in the Carrboro measure. It was eliminated from the final version after objections from Flagstaff's mayor, Joseph C. Donaldson, and a complaint from the police chief, J. T. McCann, who said the language "thrusts the department into an unenforceable partisan role that is adverse not only to our mission but our long-term partnerships" with other law enforcement agencies.
The final version omitted any reference to the police department but remained strong enough that Mr. Babbott said it would cause local police officers "to think very hard" about any federal requests for assistance that might tread upon citizens' civil liberties.
Mayor Donaldson interpreted the resolution the same way but said any hesitation could hurt the campaign to root out terrorism.
"This creates an environment for misunderstanding and procrastination," he said, adding that the resolution would ultimately have no influence on any visiting federal agents. "When the president came here before the election, his security people didn't pick up a book to read city policies and procedures," he said. "That's just not going to happen."
Meanwhile, council members on both sides of the issue said they had been barraged with criticism through e-mail messages, telephone calls and encounters on the street.
Joe Haughey, a councilman who opposed the resolution, said opponents have told him the resolution "serves as an invitation" for terrorists to come to Flagstaff. Kara Kelty, a councilwoman who voted in favor of the measure, said one telephone caller who opposed her view called her "a bimbo" for supporting it.
But, she said, she felt she voted the right way.
"I'm proud of my community," she said. "Civil liberties, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are dear to us. I didn't want to do anything to alter that."