Friday, November 16, 2007
Homeland Security Bill
A physicians' group is among a growing number of critics imploring the Senate to scrap portions of a proposed homeland security bill they say will seriously undermine civil liberties and grant the federal government unprecedented - and unconstitutional - power.
The American Association of Physicians and Surgeons said yesterday that one section of the legislation would allow the head of the Health and Human Services department to order Americans to receive potentially deadly smallpox vaccines against their will.
The bill gives "the HHS secretary virtually unlimited powers to declare an emergency and order smallpox treatment that could include forced immunizations, detainment and quarantines," said AAPS.
The 480-page bill passed the House Wednesday night on a 299-121 vote and is currently on the fast track to Senate passage. But as more details of the bill become known, the number of critics who oppose all or part of it also increase, including members of both parties as well as liberal and conservative analysts.
New York Times columnist William Safire, in an editorial Thursday entitled, "You Are a Suspect," attacked the entire measure, claiming a provision in the bill that establishes a broad Defense Department-administered database of information on every American is akin to author George Orwell's book "1984."
"To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you - passport application, driver's license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the FBI, your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance - and you have the supersnoop's dream: a 'Total Information Awareness' about every U.S. citizen," Safire wrote.
Called the Defense Department's Total Information Awareness program, it would be administered by a totally new department called the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency.
AAPS said the dubious medical emergency language is contained in Section 304, titled, "Administration of Counter Measures Against Smallpox."
The bill gives HHS authority to declare an actual or potential bio-terrorist incident while giving the secretary the power to "administer 'countermeasures'" - like forced immunizations - to "a category of individuals or everyone." Also, the bill gives HHS the power to "continually extend" the emergency declaration indefinitely, without Congress' consent.
"Also, if you are harmed" by the countermeasures, "you cannot sue or take any other civil remedy," AAPS said.
"This section will give the [HHS] secretary unlimited power to define a real or potential threat, to take any measures he decides and to do it for as long as he wants," said Kathryn Serkes, a spokeswoman for the group. "It's 'Alice in Wonderland' time again - an emergency is just what [the secretary] says it is."
Some lawmakers are also alarmed at the scope of the bill.
The legislation "gives the federal government new powers and increases federal expenditures, completely contradicting what members were told about the bill," said Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, on the House floor before the vote Wednesday.
"Furthermore," he continued, "these new power grabs are being rushed through Congress without giving members the ability to debate, or even properly study, this proposal.
"I must oppose this bill and urge my colleagues to do the same," he said.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., also opposes the legislation.
"We're making a huge mistake passing the bill at this time," he said Thursday. "There has not been a single hearing" on its contents.
Expressing concern about the manner in which the bill was being fast-tracked, Byrd added: "If necessity is the mother of invention, then politics is the mother of bureaucracy."
Other problems with the bill, AAPS says, "include centralized database provisions, airport security, unchecked power to Cabinet officials, extent of the new bureaucracy, concentration of power in the Executive Branch, suspension of the rule that prohibits secret advisory committee meetings, limited public access to information and failure to address border security and immigration issues, such as [the] tracking of foreign students."
Serkes said the provision dealing with HHS reminds her of similar emergency legislation directed at empowering governors.
The Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, WorldNetDaily reported in January, gives governors the power to order the collection of all data and records on citizens, ban firearms, take control of private property and quarantine entire cities, under the auspices of protecting "the health and safety of citizens from epidemics and bioterrorism," according to one analysis.
The version of the bill either under consideration or adopted by the majority of states thus far was drafted in October 2001, just a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, by The Center for Law and the Public's Health at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities, in collaboration with several other organizations.
"Just remove 'governor' from the old bill and insert 'secretary' and magically you have a federal bill that was firmly rejected by voters across the country," said Serkes.
Of the homeland security measure, Serkes added: "We need an honest accounting of how this will work. It's too frightening to allow it to be rammed through."
In response to some of the concerns, Senate Democrats are proposing amendments to the bill that would eliminate the liability protections in the House version for vaccine makers. The White House says it supports the amendments to an extent.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday there are provisions in the bill that "still allow people the right to compensation or the right to sue if they believe they've been harmed by the use of a particular vaccine." But, he said, the provisions "only require that individuals seeking compensation begin by seeking resolution through the Vaccine Injury and Compensation Program."
"If an individual is not satisfied with the award that is offered through that system, then they always have the right to proceed and sue the manufacturer," he said. "But, in short, the vaccine manufacturers will still be subject to liability. We just want to close loopholes, where people can circumvent that process."