Prisoners’ rights sacrificed

A rule published in the Oct. 31 Federal Register allows the justice department to monitor communications between attorneys and their clients when the government feels the communications pose a threat to national security. Attorney General John Ashcroft mandated the rule the day prior to publication, bypassing the normal period of time between proposal and implementation allotted for public comment. The rule further deteriorates the rights of prisoners – already forbidden to talk to visitors, interviewers and news media – by jeopardizing their last lines of defense, their attorneys.

The Justice Department reasons some inmates “will pass messages though their attorneys (or the attorney’s legal assistant or an interpreter) to individuals on the outside for the purpose of continuing terrorist activities.” They further contend the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel is not violated because a judge must rule whether any information obtained may be disseminated.

However, the Justice Department is once again taking too much power for themselves while eroding the people’s rights. The law already allowed for removal of an attorney if the government suspected he or she might be assisting in a terrorist act. Also, if an assistant or interpreter contacts terrorists, the Justice Department could monitor their communications.

The USA Patriot bill gives the Justice Department the right to detain indefinitely individuals suspected of
terrorist involvement. Currently, they don’t have to provide evidence of the detention if the information is classified. And now if they strip a defendant’s right to privately consult with an attorney, an individual’s protection slips even further down an increasingly slippery slope. For example, Ashcroft claims only 13 prisoners are now subjected to this monitoring and ostensibly, because clients must be told of the monitoring, the public will know how many times attorney-client rights are sacrificed. However, after calls to release the names of the 1,200 Justice Department detainees, officials responded by announcing they will no longer even release the number of people locked up.

And because the new attorney-client rule was not approved by either legislative or judiciary bodies, it is not hard to believe, if inconvenienced, the Justice Department will simply cease to tell the attorney or client. As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out, it sets “a terrifying precedent” because it might cause clients to be less than candid with their attorneys. When a prisoner corresponds with an attorney, law enforcement agents tell the detainee that his or her communications will be monitored.

The government says “trust us.” Yet, the founding fathers of this country established a set of checks and balances because they didn’t blindly trust governments. We shouldn’t either. Americans must demand their government leave in place the laws set to protect individual rights.