- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2008

NEW YORK — The U.S. political system is, at best, “a work in progress” according to an evaluation from the pro-democracy group Freedom House, which finds significant flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, counterterrorism strategies and the treatment of minorities and immigrants.

In a 300-page report, titled “Today’s American: How Free?”, to be released tomorrow, the group subjects the United States to the scrutiny it more often applies to the Belaruses and Tajikistans of the world.

Despite concerns, today’s America is “quite free,” according to group, which constantly places the United States in the top tier with two dozen other nations based on civil liberties and political rights in its annual reports on freedoms around the world.

In the United States, “challenges to those freedoms by government officials or other actors encounter vigorous and often successful resistance from civil society and the press, the political opposition, and a judiciary that is mindful of its role as a restraint on executive and legislative excess,” the authors say.

“Indeed, the dynamic, self-correcting nature of American democracy — the resilience of its core institutions and habits even in a time of military conflict — is the most significant finding.”

The study, however, expresses “grave concern” about the Bush administration’s attempt to extend the White House’s power without congressional or judicial review.

“Generally speaking, the controversies over counterterrorism policies can be traced to the Bush administration’s assertion of a degree of executive authority that is extraordinary even in wartime,” says the report, which finds that broad electronic surveillance affects millions, and law enforcement has “overreached” in terrorism cases.

Deputy Executive Director Thomas Melia said this is the perfect time for Freedom House — founded by Eleanor Roosevelt — to turn its sights on the United States. Not only is it an election year, but also the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The U.S. is the most important country in the world, and if we do reports on every country, we think from time to time it might be useful to look at our own country,” Mr. Melia told The Washington Times yesterday.

“In recent years the freedom agenda of the Bush administration has made the most conspicuous … effort to promote democracy across the world, and it’s prompted a lot of people around the world to look at us.”

In detailed examination, the authors evaluated 20 aspects of U.S. civil society, from America’s robust press and religious freedoms to the increasingly corrosive role of money in political spheres.

The United States gets mixed reviews, for example, when looking at the situation of African-Americans and minorities in general.

The report notes that over the decades the government has undertaken steps to expunge racism from the law, public institutions, economic life and popular culture. It has mandated affirmative action and adopted policies to encourage political and educational participation.

“These measures have changed America in fundamental ways. But they have not contributed significantly to an improvement in the state of the inner-city poor,” the report concludes.

Freedom House finds that U.S. incarceration rates are “jarring,” rising by more than 300 percent since 1980.

Mr. Melia said many of the authors originally focused on the post-Sept. 11 limitations on civil liberties in the country. However, it became clear in the editing process that the prison camp holding terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and monitoring of individuals under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, don’t impact as many Americans as the political process, the criminal justice system and religious freedoms.

“We famously know there are flaws in our ability to keep a voter role and count the votes properly,” he said. “But there have been historical improvements.”

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