In response to Michael Miner’s useful article on [Steve] Chapman’s role in the Tribune series on the USA Patriot Act (“Trib: A Government’s Gotta Do What a Government’s Gotta Do,” December 5).

The Pollyanna attitude of the Tribune editorials reflects, at best, a lack of knowledge of history and of the real world of power politics. The fact is that the Patriot Act and other Bush administration initiatives represent a serious threat, not only to the constitutional rights of individuals, but to the separation of powers and system of checks and balances that prevents us from slipping into a dictatorship. Chapman’s attitude seems to be “let’s give the government the huge powers they say they need to fight terrorism, and then wait and see if they abuse these powers.”

But here are some news items that should give pause:

Attorney General Ashcroft is prosecuting the environmentalist organization Greenpeace for “sailor mongering,” and might shut them down completely. “Sailor mongering” refers to an 1872 law which prohibits anybody from inducing a ship’s crew to desert their posts. It was passed because at that time there was a problem with wharf-side boardinghouse owners being bribed by captains to recruit sailors away from other ships. The law has only been used twice, the last time over a century ago. In April 2002 Greenpeace activists peacefully boarded a ship loaded with illegally logged mahogany and lectured the crew about damage to the rain forests. They received a small fine at the time, but now Ashcroft has dredged up the “sailor mongering” law to throw the book at them.

The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineering has been warned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, that their journals may not legally edit articles submitted to them for publication by countries on the U.S. government’s “terrorist sponsors” list (e.g., Cuba, Iran, etc). If they receive an article from a specialist in such a country they can publish it but they may not edit it for publication (correct spelling, grammar, style, etc) because to do so is to provide material assistance to perpetrators of terrorism. Who knew that semicolons were weapons of mass destruction?

During last year’s labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association on the west coast docks, the leaders of the union received phone calls from Donald Rumsfeld and Tom Ridge suggesting that if they did not back down on their contract demands they would be seen by the federal government as aiding terrorism. I am glad to say the union won that one, and the ILWU has since gone on record calling for the repeal of the Patriot Act.

As far as I know, the USA Patriot Act was not specifically invoked in any of these three cases. My point, rather, is to show how this administration especially shows a disposition to stretch the meaning of laws so as to use them for political purposes for which they were not intended, all to the detriment of our constitutional rights. They must really have invested time in perusing the U.S. code to come up with the “sailor mongering” charge, and the letter to the IEEE is a blatant attempt to shut down intellectual exchanges between people in different countries (the institute is international, but based in the U.S.). To raise the issue of terrorism in the context of a labor dispute is very alarming, because the USA Patriot Act creates a new crime of “domestic terrorism,” which consists of any illegal or dangerous act that “appears to be intended” to sway public opinion or pressure the government. Many things that happen in a hot labor dispute, plus things the management alleges but did not actually happen, could thus be represented as “domestic terrorism” by employers and by the antilabor Bush administration.

The Bush administration does not like environmentalists, labor unions, and people who correspond with people in certain countries. So it ransacks the statute books to find ways, however improbable, to go after them. Such an administration should not be given such a dangerous thing to play with as the USA Patriot Act, with its weakened judicial review, overbroad definitions of what constitutes terrorism, and open-ended authorization for investigating people on the attorney general’s mere word that the investigation is somehow related to terrorism.

Emile Schepers

Program director

Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights