Thursday, November 30, 2006

Here's why we're so concerned about civil liberties

How many times have you heard it from administration apologists? "I'm not a terrorist, I'm not talking to Osama bin Laden on the phone, so I don't care if they listen to my conversations. I've got nothing to hide. I'm innocent."

Well, here's a good example. You remember the lawyer from Oregon the feds scooped up and threw in jail a couple of years ago? Sure you do, they had him dead to rights. They even found his fingerprint on a supermarket bag full of detonator caps at the scene of the train bombings in Madrid. Plus, he represented a terrorist in a custody case. Definitely a bad guy, no questions asked. Naturally, our so-called allies in Europe were cautious, said to go slow, they weren't so sure. You knew they were soft on terrorism, didn't you?

Here's what they did to him: Using expanded surveillance powers under the USA Patriot Act, the government wiretapped his conversations, conducted secret searches of his home and his law office and jailed him for two weeks as a material witness in the case before a judge threw out the case against him.

“The horrific pain, torture and humiliation that this has caused myself and my family is hard to put into words,” said Mr. Mayfield, an American-born convert to Islam and a former lieutenant in the Army.

“The days, weeks and months following my arrest,” he said, “were some of the darkest we have had to endure. I personally was subject to lockdown, strip searches, sleep deprivation, unsanitary living conditions, shackles and chains, threats, physical pain and humiliation.”

Oops. It turns out they made a mistake. They didn't have the right guy. Had nothing to do with it, so they eventually just let him go.

So he did what comes natural to a lawyer: he sued them, and this week he settled the case for two million dollars. That's right, two mill to him from the federal government--I mean, two mill from our tax dollars because of what our employees, the feds, did to him.

And that's not all. They had to apologize to him. That never happens. Almost literally never. I've been suing the government and private parties--bad actors, like slumlords and people like that--for more than twenty years, and I don't think I've ever gotten an apology as part of a settlement, but they apologized in this case. “The United States of America apologizes to Mr. Brandon Mayfield and his family for the suffering caused” by his mistaken arrest, the government’s apology began.

And that's still not all. In addition to the apology, and the two million, he gets to keep the part of his case in which he was challenging the constitutionality of the so-called Patriot Act going. He didn't have to give up the legal challenge to the law to force the settlement out of the government. He'll get to continue with that case, and, hopefully, get a judgment invalidating the statute.

This is really important, but not just because of what the individual plaintiff got. One of the things we civil libertarians are saying all the time is that we have to protect the rights of everyone, even the guilty, because if we don't then the rights of the innocent are worthless. This is a guy who was innocent. Totally innocent. Not in the "innocent until proven guilty", presumption of innocence sense. He had absolutely nothing to do with it, and he was spied on, locked up, strip searched, and terrorized by our government. You're goddam right they owed him an apology.

And you also have to ask: who's the next innocent person they will do this to, and will there be anyone to stand up for that person?


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