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Jewish World Review June 14, 2001 / 24 Sivan, 5761

Thomas H. Lipscomb

Thomas H. Lipscomb
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Abandoning Miss Liberty for Ms. Reno -- THE news that Janet Reno is even being considered as a serious candidate for governor of Florida should make Americans of all political persuasions shudder. Reports that recent polls give her an excellent chance against Governor Jeb Bush, even with a primary fight for the Democratic nomination, should remind us just how far the United States has fallen away from its Founders' desire to restrict government in favor of empowering the rights and protecting the liberties of individual citizens. Janet Reno's tenure as Attorney General was the culmination of a quarter century of increasingly outrageous attacks on the civil liberties of all Americans and increasing police power first at the Federal, and now at state and local levels as well. From the level of abuse tolerated as normal today, the American people are clearly unconcerned, its press indifferent, and its legal establishment lost in the minutiae of law at the expense of any real interest in broader issues of justice.

In her first 100 days as Clinton's Attorney General in 1993, Reno decided to precipitately end a 51-day siege against the Branch-Davidians at Waco by the first full scale attack by Federal troops and police against civilians since the Bonus Marchers were pushed out of their shanty town on the Anacostia Flats in 1932. So terrifying is the memory of the attack against the Bonus Marchers to sensitive civil libertarians that PBS's "American Experience" coverage of it notes: "the sight of the federal government turning on its own citizens … raised doubts about the fate of the republic."

Like the Davidian compound at Waco, the Anacostia settlement was burned to the ground. But that's where the similarities end. The Anacostia Flats shanty town was inhabited by illegal squatters while the Davidians were on private property they had a perfect right to use. The Bonus Marchers had marched on the Federal capital of Washington to make demands based upon a dubious legislative claim. The Federals left their capital and took their demands all the way to Waco, Texas based upon a dubious regulatory offense. "Tinpot militarist" Douglas MacArthur took his time moving his troops slowly into Anacostia to allow the Marchers to move out ahead of him to avoid loss of life among the men, women, and children of the Bonus march. He succeeded. Not a single Bonus Marcher was killed.

Compassionate liberal Democrat Janet Reno clearly had no interest in the tactical purpose of a "siege." That required waiting patiently until the besieged surrender peacefully. It offended her sensibilities that her faithful Federals complained they were getting "tired" after 51 days of sitting on their haunches collecting their paychecks, TDY, and bonus pay. So she saw no choice but to launch a full-scale military attack using armored vehicles, helicopters, chemical weapons, and automatic firearms against defenseless men, women and children. She managed to kill about 80 of them, including more than 20 children. Sensitive civil libertarians such as those at Morris Dees' Southern Poverty Law Center decided "this isn't the kind of thing they handle," and the press showed no concerns this time about "the fate of the republic."

Seven Aprils later Reno concluded another siege with another full-scale attack -- this time in a classic pre-dawn nacht und nebel raid in her home state of Florida that would have made Hitler's Gestapo or Dzerzinsky's Cheka proud of her. This time, American media sentiment was proud of her as well. Her objective was to seize a six-year-old Cuban refugee named Elian Gonzalez in the midst of a minor custody hairpull that should have taken a local deputy sheriff and a U.S. Marshal about an hour to resolve with time for a cup of coffee. This Federal raid was as unnecessary as the Federal attack on Waco. On both occasions the local authorities were handling the situation with minimal difficulty until Reno's office decided to make a Federal case out of it.

The family holding Elian in custody had already agreed through counsel to give the child up when requested. All that appeared to be required was for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to send a couple of unarmed lady agents with badges, sensible shoes and a subpoena to knock on the front door at some reasonable hour in broad daylight and wait for a bag to be packed and Elian turned over to them. There was always time to go to Plan B, if that hadn't worked out. But Reno never even tried anything that simple. She preferred to carry on a bad faith "negotiation" with Aaron Podhurst, one of her oldest friends, lying to him about her plans late into the night so she could stall him while she sent her goons into action.

Clearly a simple daylight request for change of custody wouldn't have been nearly dramatic enough to justify the immense Federal police power that was standing by at the command of Reno's Department of Justice. Once again sensitive civil libertarians took the day off, except for some dyspeptic mutterings by Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe about the "dubious legality" of Reno's action. And the press turned into a cheering section for Janet Reno. The Washington Post laid a nice Easter egg editorial that stated happily that "[the] government did the right thing" while the Chicago Tribune applauded: "Well done, Ms. Reno… ." The distinguished New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman summed up the general media attitude nicely: "Yup, I gotta confess, that now-famous picture of a U.S. marshal in Miami pointing an automatic weapon toward Donato Dalrymple and ordering him in the name of the U.S. government to turn over Elián González warmed my heart."

From a nation founded by men far more concerned in their formulation of its Constitution with the danger that might accrue from the power of the infant government they were forming than the great power of the England that loomed over them, we now find ourselves in a United States in which Janet Reno is a perfectly credible candidate for the Democratic nomination as governor of our fourth largest state. How did we get here? And how did it happen so fast?

To be fair, much of the worst of it has happened over the past quarter century, not just in its culmination in the eight appalling years of the Clinton Administration's perversion of DOJ. A bipartisan alliance between "law and order" Republicans and liberal Democrat statists -- always eager to increase the opportunity for Federal intervention -- has made it possible. The first major step down the slippery slope was the FBI "Abscam" entrapments during the Carter administration in 1978.

Police in every country have always found that the elements required for proof and admissible evidence in a democracy cramp their style. They have long cast envious eyes at the time-honored use of entrapment by totalitarian states. They saw their opportunity this time and they took it. While a "probable cause" hearing before a judge may be required to install a wiretap, there are no similar restrictions on a Federal "sting."

After all, if there is "integrity" in a controlling legal authority's suspicion that a suspect might commit a crime, what can it matter if the crime was a setup, complete with pre-installed taping systems, two way mirrors and agents provocateurs working from scripts to induce an offense which can guarantee indictment and conviction? In Abscam the FBI used agents pretending to be representatives of an Arab sheik offering bribes of up to $100,000 to test and wheedle public officials suspected of political corruption into committing it on the record -- hence the contraction of Arab and scam. What could be better proof of its validity than the conviction of seven members of Congress -- our "criminal class" as Mark Twain would have it?

Greeted with rapturous applause across the nation for its attack on corruption by public officials, the entrapment campaign was expanded to local jurisdictions where Washington Mayor Marion Barry got set up for a drug conviction with the assistance of informers. The ultimate tipoff to the debasement the process has reached today is what is now common practice: the ongoing confiscation of money and assets totaling tens of millions of dollars often directly funding the agencies that created the entrapment convictions.

The process is so out of control now that there need not even be a crime committed. As Maro Robbins reported in The San Antonio Express-News last week: a huge FBI sting operation extending over many states investigating local police drug trade involvement hasn't even bothered to bait their set-ups with real drugs. In San Antonio, "…agents resorted to flour, then crumbly chunks of drywall, to mimic cocaine bricks… ." There can be no better example of the FBI's contempt for the judiciary's attention to the protection of due process and the rules of evidence than that they confidently expect a conviction on this evidence. Presumably, the first time the Secret Service can convince some would-be political assassin to shoot at a dummy of his intended victim he can be convicted of murder as well.

Much of this bonanza flowed from the increased concentration police authorities have now learned to focus on "the war on drugs" as a wild card to get them larger budget allocations, manpower, fancy equipment, and additional authority -- despite the landslide of their abuses of individual liberties they have cynically learned to regard in the current climate as a minor nuisance. J. Edgar Hoover had played the same game with the "Red menace" and the "Cosa Nostra." First the Feds and then big city police departments and now even villages boast expensive muscle-bound SWAT teams which sit around uselessly with their gold-plated heavy equipment to counter the largely imaginary "threat" of terrorist and drug lord activities. And we are left with the irony of officers of the peace increasingly making war on ordinary citizens on the least suspicion of even the contemplation of an infraction.

Two examples illustrate how far we have come. The Columbine High Schools shootings took place while Jefferson County sheriffs calmly sat outside and did nothing until some local SWAT teams arrived and showed themselves a lot more dedicated to their own safety than saving the lives of the unarmed students and teachers in peril. While students and teachers were being shot around them, five SWAT teams picked their way gingerly through the building for over an hour, terrified of shooting one another because they hadn't bothered to coordinate their communications on a shared radio frequency. So far there has been very little legal action against the gross incompetence of the police, which should have been the real story for the news media rather than the predictable emphasis on the victims, the murderers, and their families and the gun control issue which the press prefers to cover. And within the last month, the Supreme Court decided not to bother to review the rights of a mother with two children in the back of her car who was taken off to jail in handcuffs for a minor traffic violation.

There are so many examples of outrages like this that they are posted almost without comment daily in local papers across the country: in the last week a small boy was led out of his classroom in handcuffs for something he had written on a piece of paper and a girl honor student was suspended from school because someone had seen a small kitchen knife that had fallen under the front seat of her car.

If it weren't bad enough America's police powers are being used against ordinary American citizens on the most minor pretexts, America's police and public servants are just as busy using them to protect themselves. As followers of Declan McCullagh's Politech website are constantly reminded, the Internet seems to threaten our public servants at least as much as the officials of authoritarian and totalitarian states around the world. In Kirkland, Washington, an attempt by Bill Sheehan to post information on local law enforcement officers, legally available to everyone under the State of Washington's Open Records Act, has him being sued by public agencies to shut his website down. In another case Federal judge Jack Tanner threatened media outlets with contempt citations if they quoted from public documents. And just last month the Ohio legislature met to consider ways of preventing information on its members from reaching the public.

Perhaps the most glaring example of how this growing police power can be abused by the state to protect those in office was demonstrated by Janet Reno's Clinton administration. As legal scholar Ronald Goldstock points out, "since the Executive branch of government can use its police power against the Legislative and Judiciary branches, it can be used in the interest of pursuing political enemies." There are few better examples of that kind of abuse than the Linda Tripp case. Tripp's taping of the lubricious, loquacious, presidential sperm depository Monica Lewinsky was in the hands of Starr's Independent Prosecutor's office investigating Clinton. To counter this the White House ordered that some of Tripp's raw "derog," the derogatory material that accompanies every FBI background investigation of a Federal employee requiring security clearance, be turned over to a reporter by an appointed official of the Department of Defense to impeach her credibility. Janet Reno did nothing to maintain the integrity of the FBI files under her DOJ.

There was not even a scintilla of concern for the public interest in this outrage. It was done to protect an individual named Bill Clinton, who happened to be the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, from the consequences of what he and his defenders were unanimous in characterizing as his personal actions. That Clinton and Reno cared so little about the traditional sanctity of FBI files from political use by either political party, had already been shown by the use of White House staff to digest the files of almost a thousand of those viewed as political enemies into Democratic Party computers. How these files got from Janet Reno's FBI to the White House remains a mystery. And no one seems to care what happened to those computer records to this day.

But the possibility of the political use of their FBI files can throw a justifiable scare into any experienced Washington hand. I used to enjoy my occasional security clearance background investigation sessions with some cherry-cheeked FBI postulant, causing one to call in his grizzled supervisor in confusion after one story I told him about my less than angelic behavior. "What are you doing to this kid?" he asked. Since I had been relating how I had asked some Iron Curtain cutie with whom I'd been exploring "cultural exchanges" to make sure she sent some duplicate 8X10 glossies to the local CIA station chief so I could pick them up later, I stated brightly: "I wouldn't want to be vulnerable to blackmail, so I always tell the FBI everything." And most people did tell them everything, the sad, the sordid, and the gutwrenching mistakes of their lives included.

I turned down my last presidential appointment requiring a background investigation and I will never allow consideration of my appointment to any position requiring one by any administration again. You don't have to be Timothy McVeigh to no longer trust your own government these days.

Thomas H. Lipscomb is the director of the Center for the Digital Future in New York. An an editor and publisher for many years, most recently as head of Times Books, he is also the founder of two public companies in digital technology. To comment, click here.

05/07/01: Saving Lt. Kerrey
02/28/01: Marc Rich and the Clintons' Court Jews
02/08/01: From 'civil rights' to 'snivel rights' --- 1968-2001
11/03/00: Clinton’s gotterdammerung
10/20/00: Gore wins the debate --- Bush wins the electorate
06/20/00: Fire Richardson now
05/01/00: Congressional hearings on Reno’s raid are not the way to go

© 2000, Thomas H. Lipscomb