Terrorizing the Bill of Rights - Nat Hentoff, Village Voice

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Terrorizing the Bill of Rights
Nat Hentoff, Village Voice
November 19, 2001

Congress has overwhelmingly passed, and the president has enthusiastically signed, an anti-terrorism bill that, as the ACLU says, gives "enormous, unwarranted power to the executive branch unchecked by meaningful judicial review." Moreover, "most of the new powers could be used against American citizens in counterterrorism investigations and in routine criminal investigations completely unrelated to terrorism." (Emphasis added.) Also likely to be subject to this law: "those whose First Amendment activities are deemed to be threats to national security by the attorney general."

That many details of this new law are in contempt of the Bill of Rights is unknown to most Americans because, with few exceptions, the press -- particularly its television and radio divisions -- has not been paying enough attention. Even in the usually dependable New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin blithely writes that these changes in the law "do not represent a wholesale retreat from civil liberties."

To understand how this subversion of the Constitution took place, it's first necessary to explore one of the most undemocratic breakdowns in the history of our legislative process. Attorney General John Ashcroft had pressed for passage of his anti-terrorism legislation within a week. But on the House Judiciary Committee, an unusual bipartisan coalition -- Barney Frank and Maxine Waters in collaboration with Bob Barr and Majority Leader Dick Armey -- put some elements of the Bill of Rights back in the bill. And in the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy at first resisted the intense pressure from Ashcroft and the White House to ram the bill through. Leahy later went with the crowd.

By a 36-to-0 vote, the House Judiciary Committee did pass a somewhat improved version of the bill; but late at night, behind closed doors, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, other Republican leaders, and operatives from the White House scuttled that legislation and crafted a new bill.

On October 12, right after that coup, the House voted, 337 to 79, for a 175-page bill that most of its members hadn't even had time to read. Democratic congressman John Conyers said on C-Span that only two copies of the bill were available to his side of the aisle.

Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin reacted mordantly to what he described as "a backroom quick fix" before the vote. "Why should we care?" he said. "It's only the Constitution."

Barney Frank said it plainly: "This was the least democratic process for debating questions fundamental to democracy I have ever seen. A bill drafted by a handful of people in secret, subject to no committee process, comes before us immune from amendment."

Another sneak attack on the democratic process had put a quick fix on the Senate Judiciary Committee's anti-terrorism bill. Present at that closed-door session were Senate leaders and emissaries from the administration.

Swiftly, the Senate passed that much harsher legislation by a vote of 96 to 1 on October 11. Again, most members of the "world's greatest deliberative body" did not have time to read the entire 243-page bill.

The only senator with the honesty and courage to vote against this attack on due process, the Fourth and First Amendments, and others of "our cherished liberties," as the attorney general had called them, was Russell Feingold of Wisconsin. On the floor of the Senate, Feingold had tried to rouse his colleagues to repel this attack on the Constitution:

"It is crucial that civil liberties in this country be preserved. Otherwise, I'm afraid terror will win this battle without firing a shot."

There were some differences between the House and Senate bills. The hope of the ACLU and other civil libertarians was that in the traditional conference between the two legislative bodies to negotiate an agreement, at least some of the excesses of Ashcroft's proposals could be removed.

But despite the importance of this legislation to all of us, there was no conference. Leaders of the House and Senate papered over the differences in "a pre-conference," also held behind closed doors.

As a result, when sections of this new law are challenged in court, the judges -- not having a formal conference report -- will not know the clear intent of this legislation. So the judiciary, too, has been rushed past in this war against terrorism that has also terrorized our Bill of Rights.

The full name of this raid on our fundamental liberties is "the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act." It is also known, without irony, as the "USA PATRIOT Act."

Among those voting against the bill in the House were Barney Frank, John Conyers, David Bonior, Barbara Lee, Cynthia McKinney, John Dingell, Jesse Jackson Jr., Melvin Watt, Maxine Waters, and I am pleased to add, as a Villager, my congressman, Jerrold Nadler. Charlie Rangel and Chris Shays were among those voting for the bill.

For me, the most disappointing surprise in the Senate tally was the Paul Wellstone vote. He is one of the few authentic liberals left in Congress. As reported on National Public Radio, Wellstone, while troubled by the bill, felt reassured because of its "sunset" provision -- the law will be reviewed by Congress in four years to see if it went too far.

This "sunset" is illusory. In the long-term war against terrorism and its largely invisible soldiers, some of them among us, can you imagine legislators tempering this assault on the Constitution four years after it overwhelmingly passed the bill? They want to keep being reelected.

In taking this dodge, Wellstone went on to say to his colleagues fearful of having their patriotism questioned: "It is critically important that each and every one, every senator and representative, monitor the use of new authorities provided to the law enforcement agents to conduct surveillance. We're going to have to monitor this very closely." I do not think there was any applause.

Russell Feingold, left alone, said that the new law "goes into a lot of areas that have nothing to do with terrorism and have a lot to do with the government and the FBI having a wish list of things they want to do, whether it be getting into people's computer use," medical records, or other areas not related to terrorism. Next week: what some of these dangerous areas are.

-- Anonymous, November 19, 2001


Just makes you want to cry or throw up or something, doesn't it? >:-(

-- Anonymous, November 20, 2001

I am still trying to read the darn thing, let alone understand why some of it is "needed".

-- Anonymous, November 20, 2001

I apologize for the obscurity of my post. Not only do I feel very wary about the content of the bill, I am angry and suspicious that such a measure could be passed without scrutiny and due consideration.

-- Anonymous, November 20, 2001

No disrespect to JFK intended, but damn the Cold War, and damn JFK for starting the whole Executive Order thing, it was at best an evil piece of work in the era of fear the Red Menace, and has absolutely no place in this age and time!!!

Arggg!!! We must vote these real evil doers out of office, and try our level best to regain Constitutional Control of our beloved country again.

Our relatives and friends who lost their lives in the Great Wars are surely turning in their graves at the loss of Freedom here in our country, willingly gave up without a fight, turned in by our own elected officials.

I will always take Freedom over Security, any day, any time, no matter how bad the terrorism gets, and even if we are invaded physically by the "enemy", for without Freedom, there is no Security, no matter how many armed men and women guard us!!!

We should all be flying the Gadsden flag proudly in front yards, you know the one that says, "Don't tread on me" !!!

-- Anonymous, November 20, 2001

From the beginning of all this I have felt that this war is a big scam to take away our rights, and I am starting to wonder if me thinking this way will cause me to be looked upon as a terroist.

I read in the newspaper today that the goverment is giving warnings to and is going to ban websites that promote alternative, natural defence against biological war, such as thyme oil, coladical silver and such. They don't expect to have vacines against small pox untill the year 2000. They want us to go out and buy , buy, buy , but they don't want us to buy something that may be our only protection if we are zapped with bilogical warfare before they protect us.

Am I adding things up wrong? Or does our goverment even care what happens to us? Or maybe they are part of the plan to get rid of us?

I sure would like to go back to the good ole days when things were more black and white, when you knew who the good guys and who the bad guys were.

-- Anonymous, November 20, 2001

I meant to say that they don't expect to have vacines against smallpox untill 2002. Not that I'm sure that I will run out and get one when they do. Or will they try to force me to get one?????

-- Anonymous, November 20, 2001

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