In the name of "global war on terror,"
the US government is waging war on non-governmental organization by applying
"shortsighted, undemocratic policies" that are "constraining
the critical activities of the charitable and philanthropic sectors, stifling
free speech, and ultimately impeding the fight against terrorism."
This is the conclusion of a new white paper prepared by two prominent non-governmental
organization, OMB Watch and Grantmakers Without Borders. OMB stands for the
government's Office of Management and Budget, the White House office responsible
for devising and submitting the president's annual budget proposal to Congress.
The report charges that the government views nonprofits as "conduits for
terrorist funding and a breeding ground for aggressive dissent." It accuses
the courts of being "overly deferential" to the US Treasury Department,
which is responsible for conducting programs designed to stem the flow of money
to terrorist organization
It contends that federal agencies "ignore nonprofits' calls for change,"
and says, "Congress has not utilized its oversight powers to review counterterrorism
The report says that the US nonprofit community today "operates in fear
of what may spark (the government) to use its power to shut them down."
Kay Guinane, director of Nonprofit Speech Rights at OMB Watch, argued that
the current approach to counterterrorism as it relates to nonprofits and foundations
is ultimately counterproductive.
She told IPS, "In order to preserve the rights of all nonprofit organization,
and indeed, the rights of all people, all levels of government must conduct
their counterterrorism activities in a way that consistently protects liberty
and civil society. Otherwise, Americans and others lose safeguards that were
designed to protect us all from creeping tyranny."
The report, "Collateral Damage: How the War on Terror Hurts Charities,
Foundations, and the People They Serve," asserts that "current counterterrorism
policies are based on a flawed legal regime and broad, vague definitions; the
policies rely on flawed assumptions about terrorism and nonprofits; and the
policies are abused by the government to engage in unconstitutional, political
use of surveillance powers."
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) is the target
of much of the report's criticism of the government's approach. After the Sep.
11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Congress gave the government sweeping
new powers to crack down on not-for-profit organization that were using their
charitable status as cover for funneling funds to terrorist groups.
These powers include the authority to designate any charity as a material supporter
of terrorism. This action demands virtually no due process from the government,
denies the target to see the evidence against it, and can result in freezing
of a charity's assets, effectively shutting it down. Since 9/11, the government
has shut down dozens of charitable groups, but only three have ever been charged
and brought to trial for supporting terrorist causes. None has been convicted.
The report explains that current counterterrorism financing policy allows the
funds of designated charitable organization to sit in frozen accounts indefinitely.
Treasury's 2006 Terrorist Assets Report estimates that 16,413,733 dollars in
assets from "foreign terrorist organization," which include charities
and foundations, have been frozen since 9/11.
The laws that authorize the designation and freezing of assets do not provide
any timeline or process for long-term disposition, so they remain frozen for
as long as the root national emergency authorizing the sanctions lasts. To date,
no blocked funds have been released for charitable purposes, despite several
requests, the report claims.
It also asserts that the government has used its surveillance powers against
charitable groups for political purposes. It charges, "In addition to providing
aid and services to people in need, charitable and religious organization help
to facilitate a free exchange of information and ideas, fostering debate about
public policy issues. The government has treated some of these activities as
a terrorist threat. Since 9/11, there have been disturbing revelations about
the use of counterterrorism resources to track and sometimes interfere with
groups that publicly and vocally dissent from administration policies."
In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched its Spy Files Project
and uncovered an intricate system of domestic spying on US non-profits largely
condoned by expanded counterterrorism powers within the USA PATRIOT Act.
The report finds that "US counterterrorism laws have made it increasingly
difficult for US-based organization to operate overseas. For example, after
the 2004 tsunami, US organization operating in areas controlled by the Tamil
Tigers, a designated terrorist organization, risked violating prohibitions against
'material support' when creating displaced persons' camps and hospitals, traveling,
or distributing food and water."
For aid organization like the International Red Cross, compliance with US counterterrorism
laws can force NGOs to violate standards of neutrality in their work. The Principles
of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs
in Disaster Response Programs state, "The humanitarian imperative comes
first. Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients
and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on
the basis of need alone."
In some cases, the report declares, counterterrorism laws have caused nonprofits
to pull out of programs For example, in 2003 Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors
suspended funding for a Caribbean program designed to "kick-start a flow
of American charity" to that region because of an inability to comply with
Treasury Department regulations.
Professor David Cole, a constitutional law expert at the Georgetown University
Law Center, said, "The legal regime employed in the name of cutting off
terror financing gives the executive branch a blank check to blacklist disfavored
individuals and groups, imposes guilt by association, and lacks even minimal
attributes of fair process."
He told IPS, "With our return to a 'preventive paradigm' of preemptively
weeding out threats to national security, guilt by association has been resurrected
from the McCarthy era. While it was illegal in the 1950s to be a member of the
Communist Party, it is now a crime to support an individual or organization
on a terror watch list, although the government can designate and freeze assets
without a showing of actual ties to terrorism or illegal acts."
Other observers believe that the campaign against charities that conduct programs
in Muslim areas is part of a larger suspicion of Arabs and other Muslims. Samer
Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, told IPS, Islamophobia
"produces an environment that is fundamentally at odds with what the US
is supposed to be about; our values for treating everyone fairly and not discriminating
on the basis of skin color, race, religion, gender, etc."
He adds, "This is damaging certainly for all Americans and it is also
damaging for the reputation of the US overseas. One of the questions I hear
the most whenever I am in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East is: how is
it like now in the US for Arabs? Have you been the victim of discrimination,
(Inter Press Service)