Soundbite: Patriot vs. PATRIOT Act


Nat Hentoff

For decades Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff has been one of America's most trenchant defenders of civil liberties. The most recent of his many books, The War on the Bill of Rights—and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press), was published in 2003; it explores the USA PATRIOT Act and other threats to freedom in the wake of 9/11. Hentoff spoke with Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez in November.

Q:What threats to civil liberties haven't gotten enough exposure?

A:The leaked draft of PATRIOT II prompted considerable concern, so the administration is now trying to get a lot of what was included there piecemeal. Also, they're still pushing for the right to get administrative subpoenas for records, none of which have to go past a judge. And Ashcroft rounded up hundreds of non-Americans for "detention"—that's prison—for months.

MATRIX is a privately run search engine in Florida, funded in part by the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. It's an attempt to get back to Total Information Awareness, which was killed in Congress. It combines databases of all kinds. It's not a federal operation, but it's being sold to the states. Seven others have already signed on.

Q:Are there expanded law enforcement powers that you would support now?

A:They don't need new powers; they need people who know what they're doing. I think it's very unfortunate that [CIA Director] George Tenet, who's been very incompetent, hasn't been fired, because the intelligence system before 9/11 was a mess. The former FBI head William Webster has said they don't follow up and investigate and infiltrate anymore. They don't know what to do with what they already have.

Q:What can be done to resist the erosion of liberties?

A:The media have been a culprit in this because of the goddamned 24-hour news cycle, where they do a two-day story and then it's back to Kobe Bryant. But they are finally starting to cover the members of Congress who are voicing concerns about some of these things, pushed by both conservative and liberal group, like the American Conservative Union and the ACLU. Bob Barr now works with both.

At a personal level, the first thing to do is keep up with your congressperson and ask, "What are you doing?" Join the ACLU, which has done the most detailed analysis of these threats. Three states and 214 cities and counties have passed Bill of Rights defense bills. It's the equivalent of the Committees of Correspondence that began the American Revolution. Which is appropriate, because we're the patriots. Ashcroft and the others are subverting American ideals.