A stuck pendulum

Conference on World Affairs tackles lost civil liberties, privacy rights


The loss of civil liberties, especially privacy rights, over the past dozen years is among the topics that will be discussed extensively at this year’s Conference on World Affairs (CWA) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“It would be nice if we got back our privacy and civil liberties,” says investigative journalist Chip Berlet, a CWA veteran who will serve on the panel “Civil Liberties: When Left Meets Right” on April 9. “Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the erosion of civil liberties and privacy rights has been astonishing. Usually, after a major traumatic event in the United States, there is a wave of repression because that’s a natural tendency of both government and the fear of the population, but usually it rolls back a lot sooner.”

From the Alien and Sedition Act to Japanese interment to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, he says, knee-jerk reactions that have curtailed civil liberties have usually self-corrected in a decade or less, but not so in the case of 9/11. Berlet says the administration of President Barack Obama has been slow to rein in the reactionary moves that occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks, in part because the Democratic Party hasn’t forced him to.

“Right now there’s no political pressure of any substance to move him back toward obeying the Constitution or, I should say, obeying the Bill of Rights,” he says.

CWA Director Jim Palmer says privacy rights and civil liberties are issues that permeate the entire conference, whether the conversation is about espionage, guns, reproductive rights, prisoners, voting rights, immigration or medical records.

“I wonder how much people know about how their privacy is compromised, from what they buy on the Internet to what they read,” he says. “I wonder how much they care. And if they do care, what do they do about it?”

Even the use of drones raises related issues, Palmer points out.

“We’re not going to know if there are drones overhead,” he says.

Berlet uses drones as an example of state-sponsored terrorism that can violate civil liberties.

But he maintains that the push to restore things like privacy rights is neither a Democratic nor Republican ideal and, in fact, administrations on both sides of the aisle have suppressed such rights in the past. He cited as Democratic examples former President Harry Truman’s “Brown Scare” after World War II that was prompted by fears of emerging fascist groups, and former President Bill Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

More recent examples, Berlet says, are the Patriot Act and the surveillance- and intelligence-gathering fusion centers created under former President George W. Bush and continued by Obama — even though he says studies have shown that the fusion center “simply increases the amount of sewage heading upstream toward the government’s intelligence analysts, rather than really focusing on potential criminal activity.”

He notes that the accused have included “people taking pictures of trains, and they end up being train buffs.”

Berlet also criticizes the heavy-handed approach that has been used lately toward political demonstrations and students like those at the University of California-Davis who were peppersprayed for protesting.

“It’s troubling,” he says. “If police can’t tell the difference between peaceful protesters sitting down and people who blow up buildings, then we’re in big trouble in this country, and they don’t appear to be able to make that distinction anymore.”

Berlet adds that the right to protest one’s government is one of the basic principles on which the country was founded.

“Without dissent, democracy withers, and when the government is crushing dissent, it’s crushing democracy,” he says.

Joining Berlet on the civil liberties panel at 2 p.m. April 9 in the University Memorial Center (UMC), room 235, will be Guy Benson, political editor of Townhall.com; Andrew Goddard, president of the Virginia Center for Public Safety; and Michael Stoff, history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

There are several other panels related to civil liberties and privacy rights. For instance, earlier that same day, at 11 a.m. in the Wolf Law Wittemyer Courtroom, participants will debate the topic “Invasion of the Privacy Snatchers.” The panelists are Monika Bauerlein, co-editor of Mother Jones; Mary V. Hughes, president of strategic communications and political consulting firm Hughes & Company; Vivian Siegel, director of scientific education and public communications at the Broad Institute of MIT; and Jon Sinton, the media entrepreneur who created Air America Radio.

Regardless of where participants land politically, when it comes to the CWA, most seem to agree that the fun is the fact that it is an intellectual free-for-all.

“I always look forward to the CWA because you never know where the conversation is going to go,” Berlet says. “It keeps you on your toes; that’s one reason I keep coming back. It’s like a mental Olympics for all of us.”

Panels related to privacy rights and/ or civil liberties include:

• “Immigration: My Land or Our Land,” 9 a.m., April 8, UMC Center Ballroom

• “Voting is a Right, not a Wrong,” 9 a.m., April 8, Wolf Law Wittemyer Courtroom

• “Healthcare: Right or Privilege,” 10 a.m., April 9, Grusin Music Hall

• “Digital Espionage, Crime and Warfare,” 9 a.m., April 10, Wittemyer Courtroom.

• “Republicans Ravage Reproductive Rights,” 1:30 p.m., April 10, UMC Center Ballroom

• “NRA: Killing Me Softly With Your Lies,” 4:30 p.m., April 10, UMC Center Ballroom

• “Incarceration as Injustice,” 11 a.m., April 11, UMC Center Ballroom

• “The Right to Bear Arms,” 1:20 p.m., April 11, Boulder High School

• Plenary: “My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House,” by Valerie Plame Wilson, 3 p.m., April 11, Macky Auditorium

• “Supreme Court: The Tyranny of the Third Branch,” 9 a.m., April 12, UMC Center Ballroom

• “Preventing Violence: It’s not Just the Gun,” 1 p.m., April 12, UMC Center Ballroom

• “Droning on and on: New Conventional Warfare,” 1 p.m., April 12, UMC 235.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com