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Patriot Act Expansion Jeopardizes US Constitution

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release June 21, 2005

Proposed Bill to Make Permanent and Expand Provisions of the Patriot Act Jeopardize Constitutional Protections

- Interview with Nat Hentoff, columnist and civil liberties advocate, conducted by Scott Harris

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Sixteen provisions of the USA Patriot Act, passed by Congress just six weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, are set to expire at the end of 2005. The Bush administration is now campaigning hard to make permanent some of the more controversial portions of the Act that are due to sunset in December. In a closed session on June 7, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to make permanent eight of these provisions and went on to expand the power of the FBI to subpoena an individual's business records, allow wiretaps and searches without presenting links to terrorism or obtaining a judge's approval.

President Bush stated that the Patriot Act has given law enforcement officials the powers needed to make the nation safe from terrorism. Although the president recently claimed that the legislation has resulted in 400 arrests and helped convict 200 people on terrorism charges -- the Washington Post found that only 39 people had been convicted of crimes related to terrorism.

Congressional opponents of some key provisions of the Patriot Act have been stymied in their attempt to publicly challenge the administration's claims and expose abuse of the law. A June 10th House Judiciary Committee hearing was abruptly ended by committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., after hearing the testimony of four witnesses who questioned the constitutionality of the Patriot Act. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Village Voice columnist and longtime civil liberties advocate Nat Hentoff, who takes a critical look at what's at stake as the Bush administration pushes to make permanent controversial provisions of the Patriot Act.

NAT HENTOFF: The Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by Pat Roberts. To get an idea of what kind of person he is, he has steadfastly refused to allow the Democratic ranking member Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia to even put in an amendment to have an independent inquiry of how we treat prisoners we call detainees. But now he's gone beyond that to attacking the core of the Constitution, many people would say, and that is the Fourth Amendment.

Through his insistence in a closed-door session, he had the committee -- a large percentage of the committee -- pass a proposed bill that would give the FBI extended powers in a section of the Patriot Act that is now expanded, so that the FBI can now issue all by themselves. They write their own subpoenas, they do not have to go to a judge and they can secure personal records in all kinds of places -- medical offices, libraries, post offices and the like. The only people who can challenge this are the institutions that get the subpoenas, whether they are doctor's offices, or libraries or educational institutions. They can challenge it, but very few of them are likely to, because they have no incentive to. They don't care what happens to the individuals whose records have been seized and they'd rather not go through the bother and expense of going to court. The only way to stop this will be if the Senate Judiciary committee -- which is headed by Arlen Specter, R-Pa. -- takes up a countermeasure.

Now, one of the things that drives me crazy: Here is a really serious attack on an essential part of our liberties. I don't expect the Republican leadership to protest about it. But where are the Democrats? I haven't heard a word from the very outspoken showboating Howard Dean. Nothing from (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi, nothing from (Senate Minority Leader) Harry Reid. My concern is that Sens. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer in New York have been silent about practically all that's been going on in attacks on our basic constitutional liberties. So the Democratic Party -- people say they are looking for some vision, something to identify themselves. Why on earth don't they identify themselves as Democrats, protectors of the Constitution? Because clearly, the president is not.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Nat Hentoff, defenders of the Patriot Act often claim that the provisions of this legislation help fight terrorism. In fact, President Bush himself claimed 400 people were arrested and 200 convicted under the Patriot Act -- protecting the nation from terrorism. The Washington Post, as you and listeners know, found out later there was really only 39 people connected with terrorism convicted under that bill. How important is the Patriot Act to the fight against terrorism, in your view?

NAT HENTOFF: Well, I'll give you an indication. During one of the public hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Valerie Caproni -- who is the head of the Legislative Office of the FBI -- was asked, "Can you show us any evidence that because there is a delay under the present law where you have to go to a judge to get this kind of subpoena, has there been any damage to national security? She paused and said, "Well, I can't give you any of that. But it could happen, it could happen."

This is all a scam by the Justice Department, as it was under John Ashcroft, and as it is now under Alberto Gonzales. There have been very, very few prosecutions under the Patriot Act. Most of the people who have been arrested -- some have been deported for violations of immigration laws, but they haven't busted any cells. You know the Lackawanna Six -- once people began to examine those cases, they fell apart. The Patriot Act, so far, all it's done, is to give a lot of Americans -- and now I think about almost 400 cities and towns and seven state legislatures have passed Bill of Rights Defense Resolutions telling their congressmen and congresswomen to stop this and change the Patriot Act because there is a chill in the country. Not among all people, but liberals and conservatives in large numbers, growing numbers are afraid because all of this stuff is secret.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's at stake in your view, with the Patriot Act in these enhanced provisions just passed by the Senate Intelligence Committee? What should citizens be concerned about when it comes to an erosion of the Bill of Rights?

NAT HENTOFF: If this continued assault on the essence of who we are -- which is the Bill of Rights, and much of the rest of the Constitution -- if there is another 9/11 or anything comparable to it -- biochemicals released in subways, attacks on schools, hospitals, whatever -- the government is already now clearly feeling empowered to do what it wants. Some people may have seen on C-Span how in another committee, the House Judiciary Committee, James Sensenbrenner, because he was impatient and didn't want any opposition to what he was trying to push through, simply stopped the hearing he just knocked his gavel down and said, "We're through." Various congressmen said, "Hey, hey, we're not through" but he just walked out. So there's an arrogance of power there, and if there is something like 9/11, we will be in the position, I think -- and I try not to be, you know, say the sky is falling when it's only raining -- but if there's another 9/11, there will be what the Japanese Americans had to experience during the second World War. There will be internment camps for people who disagree too strongly with the government or are suspected of disagreeing.

Read Nat Hentoff's columns online by going to the Village Voice website at

Related links on our website at

* Bill of Rights Defense Committee

* American Civil Liberties Union

* Center for Constitutional Rights

* National Lawyers Guild


Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending June 24, 2005. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Scott Harris and Anna Manzo.



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