United States | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

United States

United States

Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political developments in the United States of America were dominated by the country's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which members of al-Qaeda, a terrorist network, hijacked civilian aircraft and made suicide assaults on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Department of Defense (Pentagon) near Washington, D.C. The reaction of the administration of President George W. Bush was a series of broad-gauged initiatives involving direct war against al-Quaeda and its supporters in Afghanistan; efforts to arrest or kill terror suspects abroad; and plans for a possible war against Iraq. Domestically, President Bush instituted some controversial measures to make it easier for law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies to monitor American citizens during antiterrorist investigations, including the creation of a new, cabinet-level office, the Department of Homeland Security. National security issues also played a major part in midterm congressional elections, in which President Bush's Republican Party scored modest gains.

Founded in 1776 during a revolution against British colonial rule, the United States began the modern worldwide movement for freedom and self-government. The current system of government began functioning in 1789, following the ratification of the Constitution. Because the founders of the United States distrusted centralized governmental power, they set up a system in which the federal government has three competing centers of power (the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) and left many powers with the state governments and the citizenry.

Immediately after the attacks of September 11, the Bush administration announced an ambitious, global policy of combating terrorists and the governments that support terrorists or give them sanctuary. The initial target was the Taliban, a movement of fundamentalist Muslims who had gained control of Afghanistan and had given protection to al-Quaeda and its leader, Osama Bin Laden. By the end of 2001, the U.S. military, working in concert with the Northern Alliance, an Afghan opposition group, had routed the Taliban and its al-Quaeda allies from that country.

A controversy has emerged from the conflict in Afghanistan over the fate of several hundred fighters--alleged members of al-Quaeda and the Taliban--who were captured by U.S. forces and then imprisoned in the U.S. military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. The United States contends that, as irregular forces, the prisoners do not qualify for status as prisoners of war and do not enjoy the rights guaranteed POWs under international law. Instead, the Bush administration insists on classifying the prisoners as enemy combatants. The refusal to extend POW status to the Guantanamo prisoners has generated a sharp debate among experts on international law and has provoked protests from officials in some foreign governments. In a related move that elicited protests and legal challenges, the government labeled two Americans, citizens detained on charges of involvement with terrorists, as enemy combatants. Concerns have also been raised over the government's plans to establish military tribunals to hear cases brought against foreign terrorists. Critics said that military courts would represent an abandonment of the historic U.S. commitment to a fair trial, and were unnecessary since past experience had demonstrated that civilian courts were capable of dealing effectively with terrorism cases. Thus far, with the exception of the two American citizens classified as enemy combatants, those accused of involvement with terrorist organizations have been dealt with through the normal criminal justice process, although a number of those detained for their possible involvement in terror conspiracies have been denied access to attorneys for all or part of their detention and questioning, a development that has raised particular concern among civil libertarians.

The administration also stirred criticism from civil libertarians and immigrant rights' organizations because of domestic policies instituted as part of the war on terrorism. Immediately after the terror attacks, federal authorities arrested and held in detention some 1,200 individuals for investigation into their possible involvement in terror plots. The overwhelming majority were Muslim men from North Africa, the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. Most had overstayed their visas or had other immigration status problems and were eventually deported; by the end of 2002, only a handful of these "special interest detainees" were still in custody. A source of particular discontent was the steadfast refusal of the Justice Department to make public the names of the detainees.

From the very outset, and throughout the post-September 11 period, the country's leading officials, beginning with President Bush, stressed the importance of not placing blame on Muslim Americans and spoke out against acts of discrimination or hate. Nevertheless, there was a substantial upsurge in criminal acts directed at Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in the weeks following the terror attacks. The bulk of hate crimes occurred during the first few months after September 11; according to the federal government and civil liberties organizations, the number of hate crimes against Muslims declined during 2002.

At the same time, the United States has introduced new procedures for visa applications that apply specifically to applicants from the Middle East and other majority-Muslim countries. The new rules have complicated the visa process for male applicants from betwen the ages of 16 and 45.

Civil libertarians were also concerned about certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, which was passed in 2001 shortly after the terror attacks. The new law raised a number of issues relating to the right to privacy. It sets a lower standard for law enforcement officials to meet before gaining permission to enter a person's home covertly for the purpose of investigation than was previously in place. Another section makes it easier for the federal government to gain access to an individual's personal records, including e-mails and records of library books checked out. Most of the act's more controversial sections are subject to a "sunset" provision under which they will become invalid in 2005. In another policy shift related to the war on terrorism, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been given the power to carry out investigations of domestic political, religious, and civic groups. This policy overturned a prohibition on domestic surveillance instituted in 1976.

The impact of these changes on the civil liberties of the American people is as yet unclear. The federal judiciary, which under the U.S. system holds considerable power in the determination of the constitutionality of laws and policies, has issued several orders limiting the scope of special antiterrorism measures. Cases involving other controversial policies are working their way through the court system.

Another important development was the passage of legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security, a new cabinet-level office that brings together a number of different agencies and functions that relate to domestic security. After a lengthy debate, Congress decided to include the same "whistleblower" protections for employees of the agency that are enjoyed by other federal workers.

Security issues, including the war on terrorism and the prospective war against Iraq, played a major role in the midterm congressional elections, in which the Republican Party demonstrated unexpected strength. While the president's party has historically fared poorly in midterm elections, in 2002 the Republicans did well in both the Senate and House races, extending their majority in the House of Representatives to 227-206 and winning back control of the Senate from the Democratic Party by a margin of 51-48. (One additional senator, James Jeffords, serves as an independent but aligns himself with the Democrats.) The election results were something of a surprise, given the decline in the U.S. economy that began prior to September 11 and worsened since the terror attacks. However, most analysts suggest that the election hinged primarily on voter concerns over national security and the possibility of future attacks against U.S. territory or interests, issues that have traditionally benefited the Republicans.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The United States has a vibrant and highly competitive political system. In electing a president, the United States uses a unique system that combines the popular vote with ballots cast by an electoral college. The Electoral College apportions votes to each state based on population; the electors then cast all the ballots of a particular state for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state, no matter what the margin; their vote determines the winner of the election. Under this system, it is possible for a candidate to win the presidency even though an opposing candidate may have won a greater number of popular votes nationwide.

The presidential election of 2000 was one of the few elections in which a candidate won a majority of the electoral college votes while losing the popular vote. Further complicating the election was a bitter and highly partisan controversy over the disposition of the ballots in the state of Florida, a crucial issue that ultimately decided the election's outcome. Both George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, and Al Gore, his Democratic rival, claimed to have won a victory in Florida by razor-thin margins. Much of the controversy revolved around a flawed balloting system that made it difficult to determine which candidate had received the voter's designation on certain ballots. Eventually, the Supreme Court prohibited a recount of the Florida votes, thus effectively declaring Bush the winner. In 2002, Congress passed, and Bush signed, legislation meant to make changes in the election process that will prevent a repetition of the Florida debacle. The midterm elections took place with a minimum of controversy.

Citizens of the United States enjoy a wide range of civil liberties protection through federal legislation and court decisions. In the wake of the terror attacks, however, a major debate has surfaced over a number of the measures adopted through legislation or implemented by the Department of Justice and Department of Defense. The judiciary is expected to play an important role in determining which of the new procedures and laws meet the test of constitutionality.

The press has played an especially important role in the debate over civil liberties in the post-September 11 environment. Many leading newspapers and journals of opinion have published articles and editorials raising questions about the Guantanamo detainees, the secrecy that surrounds certain antiterror policies, and sections of the USA PATRIOT Act that have an impact on the right to privacy. There remains a high degree of academic freedom, as demonstrated by campus activism against the prospect of war with Iraq and a vigorous debate over such varied issues as affirmative action and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There have been no restrictions placed on the freedom of assembly, and demonstrations opposing U.S. policies, the war in Afghanistan, and Israeli policies in the occupied territories were held in a number of cities.

The number of hate crimes against Muslims declined in 2002, although a much greater number of religion-based offenses occurred than was the case prior to September 11. Nevertheless, a wide variety of Muslim civic, advocacy, and campus organizations remained active, and many issued statements highly critical of U.S. foreign policy.

The question of the treatment of Muslims somewhat obscured evidence of overall improvement in relations between various racial, religious, and ethnic groups that make up the United States. Unlike many other countries that are host to substantial immigrant populations, the United States has generally encouraged the assimilation of racial and ethnic minorities. Although statistics vary for different groups, there is evidence of growing levels of social integration in the workplace and in schools. Intermarriage among different groups is also on the rise. Although these positive trends are visible among all minority groups, African-Americans continue to suffer from an unequal economic and educational status. Blacks endure higher poverty, joblessness, and school dropout rates than do other groups, and their college enrollment and graduation rates lag behind those of whites and many immigrant groups.

A major source of friction between blacks--and to a lesser degree Latinos--and the institutions of government has been the criminal justice system. Black advocacy organizations complain that incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos are disproportionately high and periodically make allegations about abusive police behavior aimed at minorities. Civil libertarians have advanced a broader critique of the criminal justice system, contending that there are too many Americans (especially minority Americans) in prison, that prison sentences are often excessive, and that too many people are prosecuted for drug offenses. Concern about prison conditions has been prompted by disturbing levels of violence and rape, and reports of inadequate medical attention for prisoners with mental illness. There is also a growing controversy over the death penalty; in 2002, several states announced a moratorium on capital punishment while studies are undertaken on the death penalty's fairness.

Gender equality is guaranteed by law and has been reinforced by court decisions. Although women's income lags somewhat behind that of men, the gap among those with university degrees has narrowed considerably. Women and men in their twenties earn approximately the same, and women have entered such professions as law, medicine, and journalism in substantial numbers, with women enrolling in journalism and law schools at higher rates than men.

The U.S. economy has suffered somewhat since September 11, although there was evidence of economic decline prior to the terror attacks. In recent years, the United States had adopted policies meant to enhance its integration into the global economy to a more substantial degree than has been the case with other advanced capitalist democracies. The United States has a higher degree of inequality of income and wealth than do countries with similar levels of development; on the other hand, the U.S. unemployment rate remains low by world standards, even as it increased to the 6 percent mark at the end of 2002.

Although U.S. law guarantees the right of workers to form trade unions and engage in collective bargaining, the labor movement is relatively weak, representing a little over 13 percent of the workforce and less than 10 percent of private (business) sector employees. Although cultural factors are in part responsible for a three-decades-long decline in organized-labor's strength, unions have also been hampered by strong resistance from employers and labor laws that many believe are geared to the interests of management.