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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 2001 / 2 Teves, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Rescuing the Constitution -- AT the start of both the civil rights and anti-Vietnam-war movements, a majority of Americans did not support either campaign. But, through teach-ins and other educational projects -- from newspaper ads to marches on Washington -- the direction of the nation was changed.

The odds against similar organized national opposition to the Bush administration's weakening of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, are much longer than they were in the 1960s. Not only do polls show overwhelming public support for the diminishing of civil liberties; but Congress -- except for a few vocal constitutionalists -- is not going to vigorously exercise its oversight powers over John Ashcroft and the Justice Department.

As Democrat John Dingell, a longtime, influential member of the House, told the Dec. 5 New York Times, "I hear a lot of members saying they're concerned, but not many willing to say it publicly."

There is insistent public opposition from civil libertarians, both on the left and the right; but the attorney general's often unilateral, scorched-earth approach to the Bill of Rights takes on new dimensions so frequently that his critics have been able only so far to react. There hasn't been time to organize pressure nationwide so that Congress will awaken to the separation of powers that is at the core of our system of governance.

A new addition to John Ashcroft's war on both terrorism and our Constitution is his plan -- under the expanded surveillance powers in the USA Patriot Act -- to reintroduce a current version of COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Operation). From 1956 to 1971, the FBI not only monitored religious and political groups purportedly linked to Communist operations, but the bureau also infiltrated and disrupted these organizations.

Among the FBI's targets were anti-war, civil rights and black nationalist groups, along with various liberal organizations that opposed certain government foreign policies. The Communist Party itself was, of course, included. But, as a reporter throughout that period, I can attest that many of the COINTELPRO probes were directed at entirely lawful groups and individuals without any ties to Communism.

Finally, in 1975, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Activities (the Church Committee) began to hold hearings and otherwise investigate COINTELPRO. The committee concluded that this FBI operation was "a sophisticated and vigilante program aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association, on the theory that preventing the growth of dangerous groups and the propagation of dangerous ideas would protect the national security and deter violence."

The Church Committee (named for Idaho Sen. Frank Church, its chairman) added: "The American people need to be reassured that never again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the established order."

But a Dec. 3 Wall Street Journal story headlined "Justice Department Considers Stepping Up Monitoring of Religious, Political Groups" reported that the FBI will, under this proposal, no longer be held to "Justice Department regulations requiring agents to show probable cause that a crime was afoot before spying on political or religious organizations." Those regulations were put in place after the Church Committee exposed the FBI's disgraced COINTELPRO record.

On a Dec. 2 episode of ABC's "This Week," Attorney General John Ashcroft not only did not deny the advent of a new COINTELPRO, but stoutly maintained that he will pursue whatever has to be done in the war against terrorism. He doesn't need congressional approval for this assault on the First and Fourth Amendments.

During what passed for a congressional debate on Ashcroft's anti-terrorism bill, the American Civil Liberties Union organized a Coalition in Defense of Freedom in Time of National Crisis. Opposing parts of that bill, which became law, was the largest array of civil liberties organizations I have ever seen -- from left to right and center. Included were: The Center for Constitutional Rights; the Free Congress Foundation; the American Friends Service Committee; Gun Owners of America; the NAACP Board of Directors; the Rutherford Institute; and Amnesty International USA.

If enough of these groups -- and individuals also intent on rescuing constitutional rights -- can move from reacting to organize a national coalition, Congress can be moved to act before, as Republican Congressman Bob Barr says, "This massive suspension of civil liberties ... will likely set precedents that will come back to haunt us terribly."

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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