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Jewish World Review June 17, 2002 /7 Tamuz, 5762

Nat Hentoff

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Sen. Tom Daschle, the enforcer | A number of my friends, including colleagues in journalism, are both Democrats and civil libertarians.

Those two categories are not necessarily synonymous, as Bill Clinton proved so carelessly when he was in the Oval Office.

I don't hear, however, many Democrats devoted to the Bill of Rights these days saying anything about the silence from the Democratic Congressional leadership -- Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt -- on the serial assaults on constitutional liberties in the Bush-Ashcroft USA Patriot Act, or the attorney general's subsequent unilateral anti-civil-liberties measures such as monitoring lawyer-client conversations in federal prisons, unleashing the FBI on the American public, and approving such devices as "The Magic Lantern," which allows the FBI to secretly record every keystroke you make on your computer.

Only one senator, Democrat Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, broke party discipline to vote against the USA Patriot Act, a law that lowers standards of electronic surveillance by the government and chills free speech. As examples, the gag rule prevents bookstore owners and librarians from telling anyone, including the press, when FBI agents seize records of books that suspects -- including citizens in the course of broadly defined "terrorist" investigations -- have bought or borrowed.

In the May issue of The Progressive -- a national monthly magazine based in Wisconsin -- Feingold reveals an intriguing similarity between Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's attitude toward contentious dissent and Ashcroft's assertion that those who criticize the USA Patriot Act are providing immunity to the enemy.

While that bill was being rushed through Congress by the administration, Daschle asked his troops to unanimously agree to it without debating or amending the bill. Feingold refused because the bill, he said, had some "very disturbing things."

At that point in The Progressive interview, Feingold revealed that "the majority leader came to the floor and spoke very sternly to me, in front of his staff and my staff saying, 'you can't do this, the whole thing will fall apart.'"

Feingold would not be intimidated by his leader. According to Feingold, Ashcroft -- whom Feingold voted for in the Senate Judiciary Committee -- said on the phone that Feingold might be right about some of the changes the senator wanted. But, Feingold said, "the White House overruled him."

Late that night, Feingold, defying Daschle, rose to offer an amendment to the USA Patriot Act. Feingold recalls: "A lot of senators came around to me who, of course, voted for the bill, and said, 'you know, I think you're right.'

"Then Daschle comes out and says to them, 'I want you to vote against this amendment and all other Feingold amendments; don't even consider the merits.' This was one of the most fundamental pieces of legislation relating to the Bill of Rights in the history of our country! It was a low point for me in terms of being a Democrat and somebody who believes in civil liberties."

It was also a low point for the Bill of Rights. But it's heartening to see a member of Congress who -- like Republican Bob Barr of Georgia -- refuses to back off battling for our liberties while the Bush administration keeps pledging to protect our security "within the bounds of the Constitution."

Feingold -- reminding me of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith goes to Washington" -- says he's "not a go-along kind of guy. I do respect the institution. I do respect my colleagues. But I didn't go to Washington to make friends. That's not where my friends are."

I wish Sen. Feingold had thought more deeply about the abuses to the First Amendment in the campaign-finance reform bill, which he and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain were instrumental in enacting into law -- with the unprincipled acceptance of the president. The section on issue ads alone is a startling violation of the First Amendment, including its punishment of anonymous speech, which the Supreme Court has protected in other contexts and will, I predict, protect again.

With regard to the remaining Senate Democrats marching in lockstep behind Daschle, while the rest of the Bill of Rights is being abused, Feingold should get the Liberty Medal -- if we ever have a president who remembers reading the Bill of Rights. In addition, have you seen any of the leading Democratic presidential aspirants expressing any concerns about the USA Patriot Act and our other reduced liberties?

If not the politicians, private citizens around the country are now forming Bill of Rights defense committees to protect our liberties.

And some public-spirited billionaire can help by arranging to have free copies of the Constitution -- with stories of how we gained those liberties -- distributed free in libraries, bookstores, schools, coffee houses, bars, supermarkets, gas stations and legislatures -- including Congress.

We can and must have security -- without forgetting why we are Americans.

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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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