Center for American Progress

Remarks of John Podesta to National Press Club – Center for American Progress
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Remarks of John Podesta to National Press Club – Center for American Progress

Remarks of John Podesta
President of the Center for American Progress
National Press Club Newsmakers
Washington, D.C.

John Podesta
John Podesta

Thank you Bob Cardin and the National Press Club. I am joined by Mort Halperin, a Senior Vice President at the Center for American Progress.

Today, the Center for American Progress, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Center for National Security studies release a report, titled “Strengthening America by Defending our Liberties, An Agenda for Reform.” This study details how actions by the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11 threaten civil liberties and make the United States less secure, and proposes reforms that will enhance our national security, while protecting the Constitution.

Earlier this week, in cooperation with the American Prospect magazine and The Century Foundation, we sponsored “New American Strategies for Security and Peace,” a two-day conference on the subject of U.S. national security challenges and solutions for dealing with the new threats our country faces.

For an organization that won’t have its formal launch until next Monday, we’ve had a busy week.

Some of you may think that the last thing this city needs is another think tank. In Washington, reports are released every day, and panel discussions of various stripes compete for time on the evening news.

But our efforts are the beginning of something very different: The Center for American Progress believes that developing the best policy critique means little, without first offering the best policy alternatives, and then engaging the American people in a serious conversation about them.

The Center for American Progress is founded as a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to expanding opportunities, extending our freedoms and ensuring fairness.

We claim the mantle of the non-partisan American progressive tradition that, for more than 100 years, has made American government more representative, our environment healthier, our economy more robust and equitable, and our society more just.

We believe that positive policy initiatives are most persuasive when contrasted against the failing policies they need to replace, and we will produce powerful, coherent and truthful criticisms of conservative policies, and we are determined to advocate for those same progressive ideas with a muscular effort to inject them directly into the public debate.

We respect the need for debate. But our goal is to win: to turn this nation substantively away from radically conservative policies that are unfair, unjust and that threaten our economic growth and national security.

At its core, the Center for American Progress will be an incubator of new ideas. We will add to the well of ideas the progressive movement offers America. And we will help Americans live better, more secure lives by working successfully to turn those ideas into action and our debates will be open and uninhibited, not chained to pillars of accepted wisdom.

We are recruiting from the worlds of politics, activism, journalism and other relevant fields, as well as academia and the foundation world. Our first crop of fellows includes a White House economic advisor and a political demographer; an Africanist and a health care theorist, and a syndicated columnist and a media critic. We’re also looking to the next generation of progressive thinkers. Among the attendees at the “New American Strategies” conference were national security affairs and international relations students from six nearby universities.

Supporting this talented field will be a communications team committed to getting new progressive thinking to the people who need to hear it: voters, journalists and political leaders. We have a full-time national and regional staff and we are reaching out to media of every sort: from network news programs to Internet blogs.

On a day-to-day basis, we are producing briefings, backgrounders and issue packs. One of our flagship products is the Progress Report which offers a daily progressive response to current events and is available on our web site at AmericanProgress.org. But the heart of the effort is long-term and considered policy statements and events — like this week’s forum and report — and the matrix of communications that will surround them.

“Strengthening America by Defending our Liberties” is a case in point. This report combines a detailed, factual critique of the Administration’s deep disregard for Constitutional protections as it weaves a vast security dragnet, and offers in crisp contrast positive and progressive legal, regulatory and legislative policies in response.

Its release today is the beginning of a comprehensive communications effort that will send copies of the report to virtually every civil liberties and national security reporter in America; send representatives from our affiliated 501(c)(4), Progress Through Action, to meetings with senators and representatives; and send a motivating message directly to thousands of concerned voters across America, in cooperation with MoveOn.org.

While many of the measures adopted by Congress and the Administration in the wake of 9/11 represent reasonable responses to the terrorist threat, other measures have exploited the emergency for purposes that bear little connection to the fight against terrorism. These actions have resulted in infringements of civil liberties on a scale unprecedented since the COINTELPRO and Watergate abuses.

Infringements of civil liberties do not enhance our national security; they diminish it:

  • The Administration has undermined public confidence in the justice system and the rule of law, especially in immigrant communities whose cooperation in the war on terror is vital to its success.
  • In detaining large numbers of immigrants with no connection to terrorism, the administration diverts money and people from the more difficult and important task of discovering actual terrorists.
  • And our short-sighted disregard for world opinion and international law make other nations less likely to cooperate in what must be a truly global worldwide response.

Our report breaks down administration actions into three categories: treatment of immigrants, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the treatment of enemy combatants.

The ill-treatment of immigrant-Americans began immediately after September 11, with the roundup of 762 Arab and Muslim men, most lawfully living in the U.S., on pre-textual immigration violations. They were labeled “of high interest” and placed under 23-hour lockdown. No prisoner was released until “cleared” by the FBI, a process that took, on average, 80 days – and as long as 240 days. No detainee was charged with any terrorist crime. For this, Attorney General Ashcroft makes “no apologies.”

These detentions were only a small part of a broad assault on the rights and dignity of Arab and Muslim males living in the United States. Abuses include secret arrests, detention without charges and closed hearing.

Men who have come to the U.S. from twenty predominantly Arab and Muslim countries must now be fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. And the only impartial arbiter standing between a free life and arrest or persecution in an immigrant’s homeland, the Board of Immigration Appeals, has effectively been gutted by administrative fiat.

Our report recommends requiring that a judge see detained immigrants within 48-hours; making most immigration hearings public; ending the practice of fingerprinting and interrogating law-abiding Muslim men; and creating an immigration court outside the Justice Department. None of these reforms would make America any less secure. All of them would go a long way to repairing the relationship between immigrant communities and the federal government.

The second section of the report refers to the USA PATRIOT Act. The USA PATRIOT Act contains a needed core of law enforcement improvements. Unfortunately, in its rapid response to 9/11, Congress went beyond that and gave the Justice Department broad powers to circumvent constitutional protections against illegal search and seizure — even in cases not related to terrorism — and transferred vast powers from the judiciary to the Attorney General’s office. These powers are largely unaccountable: DOJ never has to reveal how and how often they are used.

Our report recommends limiting the PATRIOT Act to prevent unnecessary intrusions into the privacy of the law-abiding, and reaffirming the role of the independent federal judiciary. Finally, we believe the Justice Department should disclose, in detail, its use of the PATRIOT Act, to the Congress and the American people.

The third section of the report considers the treatment of enemy combatants. Recognizing that many of those now in custody may have acted to harm the United States does not mean supporting their detention in legal limbo. The federal government now has the power to monitor attorney-client conversations. At the trials of designated enemy combatants, hearsay can be freely admitted. Exculpatory evidence can be withheld from the accused. There is no appeal from this designation.

The administration’s attitude harkens back the infamous, and universally repudiated, 1942 Supreme Court decision, the Korematsu v. United States ruling. In that case the court permitted the detention of over 100,000 Japanese Americans on the basis of the governments unsubstantial assertions that they posed a national security risk.

Over 60 years later, Fred Korematsu himself, now 83 years-old and in poor health, has filed an amicus brief on behalf of Yasser Hamdi, a U.S. citizen who has been detailed without access to family, counsel, court hearing, or any communication with the outside world. Korematsu urges the court to “make clear that …even in wartime the United States respects the principle that individuals may not be deprived of their liberty except for appropriate justifications that are demonstrated in fair hearings, in which they can be tested with the assistance of counsel.”

Korematsu isn’t the only one looking to reign in the Justice Department. This July, the House voted, with overwhelming bipartisan support, to suspend funding for sneak-and-peak searches.

How has John Ashcroft responded to the criticism? Testifying before Congress, he admonished his detractors: “To those who pit American against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”

Let me say this back to Mr. Ashcroft: pride and patriotism do not necessitate that we turn a blind eye to controversial policy choices. Closing ranks doesn’t also mean closing our minds.

The Administration has presented the American people with a false choice; it is not necessary to forfeit civil liberties in order to enhance security.

Richard A. Clarke served for 11 years as a counterterrorism advisor to Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Departing office last February he remarked: “I have never seen one reason to infringe on privacy or civil liberties.”

Respect for rule of law and the rights of individuals has always been a core value of American progressives. The unique circumstances America faces today do not change their importance. The Center for American Progress believes that a progressive voice must be raised against the radical conservatives who would make our nation less just and less safe, by making our liberties less secure.

Just as important, we believe that the progressive voice must be heard.

And we will be heard – not just in protection of our constitutional liberties but on all issues central to the lives of the American people.

We will speak out to the American people against the growing inequality of our national income, exploring economic policies that bring growth to every segment of our economy, and tax policies that recognize that tax burdens fall on middle class families even harder than they hit the well-to-do.

We will reconcile issues as diverse as environmental protection, international trade and immigration reform into a coherent worldview based on long-term benefits that accrue across borders and throughout America.

And we will fight for a security policy that wins victories with collaboration as well as conflict, and defends American values here at home, even when they are threatened from abroad.

Our actions will always be rooted in ideas and the ideals that gave America the progressive movement, but we are eager to engage in the political battles that shape our nation’s future. Because, we believe, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Aggressive fighting for right is the noblest sport the world affords.”

Thank you.

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