Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Another blow for civil liberties

A Los Angeles judge has ruled that President Bush has too-broadly asserted his authority to designate groups as "terrorist organizations", a designation that allows the government to freeze the assets of such groups and any individual associated with it.

Lest anyone think that the judge, Audrey Collins, is simply a liberal activist, think again:

The judge's 45-page ruling was a reversal of her own tentative findings last July in which she indicated she would uphold wide powers asserted by Bush under an anti-terror financing law. She delayed her ruling then to allow more legal briefs to be filed.

Part of this case would seem to be a no-brainer: the sanctioning of people "associated" with a designated group. That's such a broad designation that it amounts to guilt by association.

The designation of terrorist groups is more tricky. Clearly, there ought to be a mechanism for identifying such groups, and then targeting them with whatever pain we can muster. But "because the president says so" really isn't a very good standard. Which was the judge's point when she found the executive order to be vague and overbroad. Collins upheld the order's definition of a terror group; the problem was that it was solely up to Bush to decide if a given group met that definition, with no published criteria for doing so.

Which is really, in a nutshell, the Bush approach to security. He doesn't do nuance; he doesn't do balancing. He uses a shotgun to kill an ant. He takes a decent basic idea -- "must identify terror groups" -- and then goes into overkill mode, shrugging off competing concerns and asserting more-or-less-unbounded personal authority, thus provoking a backlash that ends up causing even more damage and distraction to his cause and our security.

As an aside, the plaintiffs -- the Tamil Tigers and the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group -- handily illustrate the truism that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Both have used terrorist tactics, but terror is neither their goal nor their primary weapon. I have little use for either group, but they have (or had) at least some legitimate grievances. Such complexity is why there needs to be some clear, objective criteria for designating a terror group to avoid including every paramilitary group or guerrilla army on the planet.

I'll put up a link to the text of the decision as soon as I can find it.

Update: The ruling can be found here (pdf).

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