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ACLU Thought Police?

Monday, December 9th, 2013


by Nat Hentoff

I have long expressed admiration for the American Civil Liberties Union for ardently defending the Constitution in our legislatures and courts, including the Supreme Court. Since September 2001 the ACLU has had a much tougher task thanks to the Bush-Cheney and Obama administrations. At times, however, I have strongly disagreed with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. Such was the case after a jury acquitted Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman—on grounds of self-defense—of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin. Romero wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and said “it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil-rights violation or hate crime.”

Years ago I had a particularly long, fierce argument with Romero. I tried to explain that giving a convicted defendant additional prison time for a so-called hate crime violates the First Amendment because it imposes punishment of thoughts, not actions.

I brought James Madison into my argument with Romero. He was the Founding Father who introduced the Bill of Rights—including what came to be the First Amendment—to Congress. Madison had previously written to Thomas Jefferson after the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was passed: “We have in this country extinguished forever…making laws for the humanmind.” No American, Madison emphasized later, would be punished for his “thoughts.”

By urging that Zimmerman be prosecuted again, Romero disregards the Fifth Amendment, which unequivocally stipulates: “nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy.”

Suddenly, though, reported that Romero was not speaking for the entire ACLU. Laura Murphy, director of its Washington office, sent a letter to Attorney General Holder. She said: “We are writing to clearly state the ACLU’s position on whether or not the Department of Justice should consider bringing federal civil rights or hate crimes charges as a result of the state court acquittal in the George Zimmer man case. The ACLU believes the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution protects someone from being prosecuted in another court for charges arising from the same transaction. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and that should be the end of the criminal case.”

Ira Glasser, a true civil libertarian, was the ACLU’s executive director from 1978 to 2001. He said that Romero’s letter to Holder illustrated “the transformation of the ACLU from a civil liberties organization to a liberal bandwagon organization.” He added that “it’s just astonishing to me that a statement like that could go out without any understanding that they [ACLU] were violating their own policy.”

The ACLU wasn’t. Anthony Romero was. My position is: When, as allegedly happened to Zimmerman, someone is standing over you and banging your head hard again and again against the ground, you are entitled to defend yourself.

Romero’s letter prompted this response from my old friend Michael Meyers—a longtime battler for and teacher of civil rights: “No government, much less an angry community, is entitled to a verdict to their liking.…The ACLU is not the NAACP; the ACLU is the guardian of individual liberty, not a victims’ rights or racial grievance group.”

I applaud Laura Murphy for restoring the ACLU’s reputation by overriding Anthony Romero’s appeal to enlist the ACLU as an advocate of double jeopardy. But I cannot stomach the fact that the ACLU champions federal and state hate-crime laws, which violate the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments. On May 13, 2009, after the House of Representatives passed what became the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, I voiced my thoughts on Colorado lawyer Robert J. Corry Jr. cemented them: “A government powerful enough to pick and choose which thoughts to prosecute is a government too powerful.”

I went on to ask: “Is there no non-politically correct ACLU lawyer or other staff worker or any one in the ACLU affiliates around the country or any dues-paying member outraged enough to demand of the ACLU’s ruling circle to at least disavow this corruption of the Constitution?”

Teach Jazz!

Monday, November 11th, 2013


by Nat Hentoff

A well-intentioned George W. Bush mistakenly championed the No Child Left Behind Act. Teachers throughout the nation had to spend a lot of time preparing students for standardized tests in reading and math. These determined not only if students could be promoted but also which teachers could keep their jobs. Much to my dismay, classes in the arts, particularly music, were eliminated because of budget cuts and because so much time was being devoted to students practicing for the tests.

On that note, one of Valerie Strauss’s recent Washington Post columns (“The Answer Sheet”) was titled “Music education helps kids learn to read—study.” She quoted Professor Daniel Willing ham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia. He pointed out that without training in music, “children are less likely to learn the association of certain written letter patterns and their corresponding rhythms in speech if they don’t perceive the rhythms of speech very well.”

Professor Willingham reminded me that I had seen how jazz rhythms can be beneficial to young children. About ten years ago a fourth-grade teacher at a New York City elementary school invited me to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the joyous, early history of jazz in New Orleans. This musical genre ultimately spread around the world as a distinctive bounty of American culture.

Rather than merely deliver a lecture, I brought one of my favorite recordings by clarinetist George Lewis and His New Orleans Stompers. I’d been told that none of the kids had ever heard of jazz, much less George Lewis, but that only made what happened even more electrifying. Soon after the swinging music started, some of the students began to move in their seats to the beat and then jumped up to dance. Their classmates eventually joined them, and so did their teacher.

Later she told me the school, as a result, had added music, including jazz, to its curriculum. The students’ test scores in other subjects, she proudly mentioned, went up.

As I was about to write this column, the July-August 2013 edition of Allegro (the lively publication of New York’s Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians) arrived. For its cover story, “The Art of Teaching Music,” several Local 802 members were asked how they learned to become effective teachers.

Jon Berger, a percussionist who has performed with Aretha Franklin and the Roy Merriwether Trio, gave a lesson to teachers of any subject: “My mentor in college inspired me to observe the individuality of each student rather than force techniques and methods. So my advice to others is to get to know your students. Find out what inspires them—and what shuts them down. … ‘Music is magic,’ I tell the little ones. ‘You make a sound, and people instantly respond. It is a universal language that brings people together.’”

One of the biggest kicks I’ve had as a writer on music is keeping up with Kids for Coltrane, the brainchild of New York City elementary school teacher Christine Termini Passarella. I was a friend of John Coltrane, whose deeply enliven – ing tenor saxophone and composing reached inside of me. But I never thought little kids would dig him until I started writing my book At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene.

I quoted Passarella in the chapter “These Little Kids Think Coltrane Is Cool”: “The children were drawn to the range of feelings in the songs (and playing) as I gave them the backgrounds of the compositions. ‘Alabama,’ for example, was about Martin Luther King and racial discrimination.”

Iconic jazz composer and teacher Quincy Jones has been working for years to get music back into our schools. And that’s why trumpeter Jon Faddis likes to tell how a bloodthirsty civil war in Africa was suddenly suspended. The leaders of the armies on both sides had heard that Louis Armstrong would be doing a concert in the Belgian Congo. Those adversaries just had to hear Satchmo’s soulful sounds and marvelously energizing rhythms.

That’s just one global contribution this country has made to the ages. This too ought to be taught in our schools.

Privacy R.I.P.

Monday, October 14th, 2013


by Nat Hentoff

While the media and even Congress were outraged about the Obama Administration’s eavesdropping on the personal phone calls of Associated Press reporters and editors, I’m also outraged about We the People’s apathy. Most of us have become so conditioned to the government and corporations databasing our personal communications, I expect there will be little commotion about what could be in store for our privacy as revealed by

In “Biometric Database of All Adult Americans Hidden in Immigration Reform,” senior staff writer David Kravets foretells the ultimate demise of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of “unreasonable” government searches: “The immigration reform measure [being debated in the Senate] would create a national biometric database of virtually every adult in the U.S. in what privacy groups fear could be the first step to a ubiqui tous national identification system.”

Kravets adds: “Buried in the more than 800 pages of the bipartisan legislation is language mandating the creation of the innocuously named ‘photo tool,’ a massive federal data base administered by the Department of Homeland Security and containing names, ages, Social Security numbers and photographs of everyone in the country with a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID.”

Keep in mind all the “proofs of self” that are continually being added to the USA PATRIOT Act. Nearly every new doctor I go to now requires I bring a photo ID. Never had to when I was a kid.

Says ACLU Congressional lobbyist Chris Calabrese: “It could be the start of keeping a record of all things.”

Why not? Our Founders had no premonition of biometric and other forms of increasingly sophisticated technology. Once in power, all governments are insatiable in demanding more and more information about their subjects— from the New Deal to the FBI and CIA.

Kravets, who’s hip enough to use the chilling term “inevitable mission creep” in his article, notes: “For now, the legislation allows the database to be used solely for employment purposes. But historically such limitations don’t last. The Social Security card, for example, was created to track your government retirement benefits. Now you need it to purchase health insurance.”

And a lot of other things. To be paid for writing this column, I have to provide HUSTLER my Social Security number.

David Bier, an analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says the “photo tool” is “like a national ID system without the card.” And any of us anytime can be “a person of interest” without our knowing we’ve been targeted until we feel the hit.

How much do you want to bet that this “photo tool” will be ignored in the 2014 and 2016 elections? And who knows what will be in our grandchildren’s databases? Or that of anyone who has publicly commented on reading this column. So how many Americans—now and in coming generations—will identify themselves as members of a self-governing republic?

This is why I keep commenting on the growing number of public-school classrooms in which students are learning how to be the kind of Americans for whom the Bill of Rights was intended.

In her book No Citizen Left Behind, Meira Levinson of the Harvard Graduate School of Education writes: “We were able, in our classes, to use something students actually cared about to explore federalism, the rule of law, separation of powers, individual versus collective responsibility…and critical analysis of public rhetoric.”

Meanwhile, in my book Living the Bill of Rights, I quoted scholar John A. Howard’s essay “On Freedom”: “We have in the U.S. produced several generations of cultural orphans who have little knowledge and even less appreciation of their heritage of freedom, or the struggles and sacrifices which produced it. … We have inadvertently engaged in a kind of unilateral intellectual disarmament which could well prove more devastating to the cause of liberty than would be the destruction of our defense arsenals.”

That’s how Barack Obama was reelected and why his opponent Mitt Romney said that if he’d been in Congress, he would have voted for the USA PATRIOT Act. Jefferson and Madison warned that only an informed citizenry would make the revolution work. What’s going on in the schools where you are? Education is the key.

They Can Follow You Everywhere

Monday, September 9th, 2013


by Nat Hentoff

I’ve previously mentioned my gratitude to Google for its swift and verifiable answers to my research questions. But the Silicon Valley leviathan is increasingly a menace to what’s left of our privacy.

Now being developed is Google Glass, a controversial glasses-like device that “allows users to access the Internet, take photos and film short snippets,” reported David Streitfeld in a New York Times story. “Glass is promoted by Google as ‘seamless and empowering.’ It will have the ability to capture any chance encounter…and broadcast it to millions in seconds.”

Feel a little clammy?

So does HUSTLER contributor Robert Scheer. In a post titled “Google’s Spy masters Are Now Worried About Your Secrets” he wrote: “Every time there is a so-called terrorist attack on American soil, pressure to ramp up the reach of our increasingly omnipresent surveillance state spikes, sweeping ever-larger numbers of people and more intimate information concerning their lives into national databases.”

Where’s the indignation among the citizenry? Fear of terrorists has conditioned us to ditch the Fourth Amendment.

Scheer continued: “These technological invasions of our privacy serve to undermine the bold assertion of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that the protection of personal, private space is essential to the freedom of the individual.”

Did you wave goodbye?

Quoted by Scheer are lofty Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who coauthored the Wall Street Journal article “The Dark Side of the Digital Revolution.” Ever heard of biometric information? In their words, it “can be used to identify individuals through their unique physical and biological attributes…. With cloud computing, it takes just seconds to compare millions of faces…. By indexing our biometric signatures, some governments will try to track our every move and word, both physically and digitally.”

Meanwhile, corporations like Google can collect data on what we buy and increase profits by selling it to third parties.

Schmidt defended Google’s data-sharing in 2009 when, as its CEO, he told CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

I don’t expect Google Glass to be mentioned much, if at all, in upcoming national, state and local elections. Maybe Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat who remains loyal to the bedraggled Constitution, or Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky will remind us that the American Revolution began simmering in part because the colonists were enraged by British customs agents raiding their offices and homes without warrants, just as the FBI does now habitually.

Along with privacy, this ceaselessly voracious technology is taking from us our most effective weapon against an ever more enveloping police state: free speech. Tucked into David Streitfeld’s peek at Google Glass was a keen observation by Bradley Shear, an expert on social media at George Washington University: “Google Glass will test the right to privacy versus the First Amendment.”

Google Glass and potentially more effective destroyers of individual privacy continue to surpass our wildest imaginations. How many of us could have even conceived of a high-speed, übercomprehensive search engine, much less Google Glass, 20 years ago? And how many protesting journalists, Constitution-defending politicians and outraged citizens will be able to withstand the scrutiny of their private lives by the likes of Google and Barack Obama and the tech-savvy villains following in their footsteps?

I insist that this country’s best chance to again become a self-governing Constitutional republic is if more and more teachers are willing to stand up to tyranny and the invasion of privacy. They will enable new generations of voters to fully understand what it is to be a free American in charge of their government.

The true America has survived the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and later the Civil War, including Lincoln’s violation of his northern opponents’ civil liberties; the first Red Scare and J. Edgar Hoover; the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War; anti-Communist zealot Joe McCarthy’s 1950s witch-hunt; and it is surviving terrorism.

But will America survive what Google Glass portends it will become?

Jazz Is Still Kickin’

Monday, August 12th, 2013


by Nat Hentoff

I began reporting on jazz and knowing its key players in the late 1940s, also learning life lessons from them ever since. Tenor saxophonist Ben Webster advised, “Listen, kid, when the rhythm section ain’t making it, go for yourself!” I’ve done that in hassles with editors and wives.

Obituaries for my favorite musical genre began when rock overran jazz’s popular big-band period (Benny Goodman, et al), and they keep marching on. Benjamin Schwarz recently added one in The Atlantic: “The End of Jazz: How America’s Most Vibrant Music Became a Relic.”

Such a relic that jazz combos are still booked around the world. For example—I kid you not—in Siberia. Meanwhile, Jazz Times magazine reported that UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has “officially designated International Jazz Day…to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe every April 30.” As jazz legend Duke Ellington (1899-1974) marveled, “The music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”

So how come these grimly misinformed obituaries keep blowing clinkers only in America? “Kids here just aren’t interested in this music anymore,” they lament, “so its audience keeps on dwindling.”

Really? There are more and more high school jazz bands nationwide, and many of them participate in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington support program and annual competition. Among those impressing the judges is the jazz band at my alma mater, Boston Latin School.

When I attended BLS in the 1940s, jazz was never mentioned and certainly never performed. During a visit there many years later, I delighted in its band’s swinging rendition of Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Later I told the young musicians that Duke would have been very pleased. They were stunned that I was so old, I had actually known the jazz icon.

And I was stunned at what I heard at the 2012 Mingus High School Competition & Festival at New York City’s Manhattan School of Music. I had been told by established jazz musicians that Charles Mingus’s repertoire would be too difficult for high school jazz bands to play. Well, they not only wowed me but also John Thomas Dodson, conductor of the Adrian (Michigan) Symphony Orchestra.

After one band went lights out with “Haitian Fight Song” and “Better Git It in Your Soul,” Dodson posted on his Mingus Lives blog: “I’m guessing that many of the high-school students had never even heard of Charles Mingus before they began to work their minds, ears and instruments around his music. By now, his work has become a part of them.”

I advise the authors of jazz obituaries to also wake up to Jazz House Kids in Montclair, New Jersey. As noted on its website, this community based organization “provides the framework for students to cultivate the talent, discipline, skills and principles they need to play, sing and appreciate America’s original musical art form.” Mike Lee, head of music instruction at Jazz House Kids, notes that some of its most advanced student musicians “range in age from nine to a grand old 12.” Too young for obituaries?

Since my three lifelong vocations are education, jazz and the Constitution, I’ll proudly mention my kinship with the late jazz percussionist and composer Max Roach. In 1960, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, I was A&R director at Candid Records when it released his album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. “You write a lot about the Constitution,” Max told me years ago. “So ours are individual [jazz] voices listening intently to all the other voices. That’s how the Constitution works.”

Whether or not We the People still have a living Constitution after Bush and Cheney and, more damagingly, Obama, I have many immor tal reasons to rejoice: Max Roach, Duke Elling ton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet, James Moody, Billie Holiday and all the other creators of the spirit-lifting, thought-provoking life force this country has given the world.

Even if jazz, like our personal liberties, becomes another casualty of Americans’ apathy, this freedom music will keep on living around the globe anyway. As Sidney Bechet told me, “You can’t keep this music down wherever it wants to go.”

Bold Move

Monday, July 8th, 2013


by Nat Hentoff

Impressed by his insistent, often-solitary championing of civil liberties in the U.S. Senate, I twice wrote that Rand Paul should be our next President. But at that time I knew it was just a pipe dream because the Republican’s national name recognition was so low. Now, thanks to his filibuster during the Senate’s ultimate confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director, Paul has become a viable 2016 candidate. Even more surprising, Kentucky’s junior senator barely uttered a word about Brennan throughout the electric 13 hours he spent addressing his fellow lawmakers on March 6, 2013.

Two days later this new media phenomenon made his goal much clearer in a Washington Post op-ed titled “My filibuster was just the beginning.”

For years I’ve been complaining in HUSTLER about the apathy of Congress and much of the country with regard to how the Bush-Cheney regime and then Obama’s formulated their own rules of law against terrorism. That’s why Rand Paul “wanted to sound an alarm bell from coast to coast. I wanted everybody to know that our Constitution is precious and that”—dig this, fellow citizens—“ no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime. As Americans, we have fought long and hard for the Bill of Rights. The idea that no person shall be held without due process, and that no person shall be held for a capital offense without being indicted, is a founding American principle and a basic right.”

I’ve been writing again and again that, as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison warned, only We the People can protect our individual liberties under the Bill of Rights. Rand Paul began to do it nationally overnight.

Undoubtedly stung by the enthusiastic approval of Paul’s filibuster on Capitol Hill and around the country, Attorney General Eric Holder sent Paul a terse letter that made the libertarian senator believe his hoisting of the Bill of Rights had been successful up to a point: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer to that question is no.”

But Paul is far from silenced. In his op-ed, he added that “my filibuster was the beginning of the fight to restore a healthy balance of powers. …The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment [granting due process and other protections] applies to all Americans; there are no exceptions.”

Besides celebrating that “millions have followed this debate on TV, Twitter and Facebook,” Paul went on to say that “I hope my efforts help spur a national debate about the limits of executive power and the scope of every American’s natural right to be free. … I believe the support I received this past week shows that Americans are looking for someone to really stand up and fight for them. And I’m prepared to do just that.”

The longer-range significance of Senator Paul’s 13-hour fire alarm is that more of us who do not call ourselves libertarians—or even know what the term means—have been jolted out of the conditioning of Bush- Cheney and Obama’s “new normal” that has increasingly abolished personal privacy. Nevertheless, Americans reelected a President who insists he can order the military to imprison Americans right here in the Land of the Free without habeas-corpus rights for supposedly being “involved” or vaguely “supportive” of terrorism.

After years and years of what Justice William Brennan once told me—“The Bill of Rights never gets off the page and into the lives of most Americans”—Rand Paul has spurred numerous citizens to openly criticize the government’s attacks on our basic liberties.

Exemplifying Americans’ anger is Rita Lasar, whose letter was printed in the New York Times on March 11, 2013: “The idea that any President can kill an American citizen without a trial is abhorrent and frankly scares me more than any act of any ‘terrorist.’”

Although Attorney General Holder assures us this is no longer possible on U.S. soil, smashing the “new normal” hinges on knowing that the assurances of recent Presidents and their minions have been plain crap. So Rand Paul’s Presidential aspirations, while buoyed by his filibuster, will be fruitless if his fellow Americans don’t reeducate themselves on what’s guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. It’s up to us.

Humanizing All of America’s Murder Victims?

Friday, May 31st, 2013


by Nat Hentoff

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, was a nonviolent, direct-action enabler of social justice whom I was privileged to know. In New York City she organized the first civil-disobedience protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and I was there protesting.

Carrying on the late activist’s unflinching spirit is the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, which publishes the Catholic Agitator. The publication’s February 2013 edition featured a thought provoking article titled “Guns and Drones,” in which author Theo Kayser took a stand I have not seen in all the coverage of a gunman’s rampage at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.

He framed his argument with a report, which I have cited elsewhere, from the London- based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Its records disclose “at least 176 children killed in drone strikes carried out in Pakistan, with another 27 to 35 killed in Yemen, and hundreds more adult civilian casualties.”

Turning to the murdered children in Connecticut, Kayser noted that “a new emphasis has been placed on gun control and background checks in this country.” So “perhaps we would be forced into a serious debate as to the morality and legality of this country’s military practices if photos of every person killed by a Hellfire missile were broadcast for a week in the national media after their death.”

And dig this, one and all: “Maybe,” Kayser continued, “we could begin to feel the same sense of outrage at the deaths of Pakistani children if, as with the children in Newtown, we were told about their favorite sports teams or their artistic prowess. And maybe we would demand an end to their killing if we were so reminded of their full humanity.

“When those doing the killing see only figures on a screen, how much more removed are we who hear only whispers of such murders in the media?”

By contrast, in this nation, Kayser reminded us, “repeatedly you heard about the 20 children and six adults killed in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. You saw the names of those killed, and you heard their stories. You were told of the quality of their character, and you were informed of when their funerals took place.”

Therefore, many Americans agreed “it was a tragedy that so many lives were prematurely lost and so, millions of [us] grieved.”

However, even those who might be disturbed to learn more about the kids blown away in Pakistan and elsewhere would likely not object if the festering details were never publicized. I have what may well be unpleasant news for them: The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) recently announced that it is “launching an ambitious new investigation which will seek to identify as many as possible of those killed in U.S. covert drone strikes in Pakistan, whether civilian or militant.”

Meanwhile, TBIJ reported that it “has already recorded the names of hundreds of people killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. At the end of January 2013 the Bureau was able to identify by name 213 people killed by drones in Pakistan who were reported to be middle- or senior-ranking militants. A further 331 civilians have also now been named,87 of them children.” [Emphasis added.]

TBIJ acknowledges that “part of the justification for the U.S. carrying out drone strikes without consent [of host governments] is their reported success. And naming those militants killed is key to that process. Al-Qaeda bomber Fahd al-Quso’s death was widely celebrated. Yet how many [American] newspapers also registered the death of Mohamed Saleh Al-Suna, a civilian caught up and killed in a U.S. strike in Yemen on March 30, 2012? By showing only one side of the coin, we risk presenting a distorted picture of this new form of warfare. There is an obligation to identify all of those killed—not just the bad guys.”

As the Obama Administration zealously maintains its drone strikes in far-off lands, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is actively seeking additional funding for its Naming the Dead Project. So I was pleased to learn that the Freedom of the Press Foundation is now a key backer.

You are invited to join the debate at TBIJ’s website,, and

Congress Tunes Its “Instrument of Villainy”

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

My most exciting memory of growing up in Boston during the Great Depression was learning how our independence was born. A pivotal event occurred in 1761 in a Boston courtroom. Lawyer James Otis Jr. spent nearly five hours arguing against extension of the “writs of assistance,” which British officials drew up themselves—like today’s FBI does—so they could burst into unspecified colonists’ businesses and homes in search of smuggled goods and other items.

As I chronicled in my book Living the Bill of Rights, Otis told the magistrates: “The freedom of one’s house is an essential liberty, and any law which violates that privacy is an instrument of slavery and villainy.”

Otis lost the case, but in the courtroom was a lawyer named John Adams (later our second President), who wrote in his notebook that very night: “Every man of an immense crowded audience appeared to me to go away as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance. Then and there was the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born.”

Otis subsequently proclaimed in a pamphlet that those writs violated the British constitution and Magna Carta. Hence, as I have told American schoolchildren over the years, they inspired the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution. This part of the Bill of Rights guards against unreasonable searches and seizures and decrees that any warrant be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.

Adams later wrote, “Otis was a flame of fire [that night].” But since 9/11 the Bush- Cheney Administration and Barack Obama’s even more harshly have dimmed that flame.

And now our lawmakers practically eviscerated the Fourth Amendment on December 28, 2012. As Robert Pear reported in the New York Times, “Congress gave final approval… to a bill extending the government’s power to intercept electronic communications of spy and terrorism suspects after the Senate voted down proposals from several Democrats and Republicans to increase protections of civil liberties and privacy.” The vote was 73 to 23.

The dissenters worried that electronic surveillance, though directed at suspected non-citizens abroad in contact with Americans, “inevitably swept up communications of Americans as well.”

More pointedly, despite President Obama’s strong support of the bill and its passage in the House of Representatives, Senate Democrat Richard J. Durbin of Illinois reminded those few of us who were paying attention that this extension of the government’s surveillance authority for five more years “does not have adequate checks and balances to protect the Constitutional rights of innocent American citizens.”

How many of us are still regarded by our intelligence agencies as “innocent American citizens”?

Dig this from Pear’s report: Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) said he and Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) “were concerned that ‘a loophole’ in the 2008 law [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] ‘could allow the government to effectively conduct warrantless searches for Americans’ communications.’”

Of course, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. told Congress, “There is no loophole in the law.” So how come, fellow Americans, Pear reported that “by a vote of 52 to 43, the Senate…rejected a proposal by Mr. Wyden to require the national intelligence director to tell Congress if the government had collected any domestic e-mail or telephone conversations under the surveillance law”?

In the midst of Republican and Democratic administrations’ reluctance to tell We the People what the hell is going on as the government invades our privacy ever more contemptuously, Senator Wyden told his colleagues that this impervious secrecy from on high “reminded him of the ‘general warrants that so upset the colonists’ more than 200 years ago.” Me too.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) noted, “The Fourth Amendment was written in a different time and a different age, but its necessity and its truth are timeless.” He added: “Over the past few decades, our right to privacy has been eroded. We have become lazy and haphazard in our vigilance.”

We’ll long be paying for our laziness in ways we will not even know while those we keep electing continue to pry into our lives.

Nat Hentoff is a historian of the Constitution, a jazz critic and a columnist for the Village Voice and Free Inquiry. His incisive books include The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech in America and Living the Bill of Rights.

Raping the Bill of Rights

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Much to my dismay, I saw little notice, let alone celebrations, around the country on the recent 221st anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Those initial ten amendments to the Constitution guarantee our most essential individual liberties.

But on the occasion the Wall Street Journal ran “U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens,” a front-page story by Julia Angwin. She reported that Attorney General Eric Holder—without a peep of protest from President Obama—signed rules that “now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice.”

So much for due process and the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of privacy. Moreover, Angwin noted, “The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited.” And if that wasn’t enough to shock Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in their graves, “The changes also allow databases of U.S. civilian information to be given to foreign governments for analysis of their own.” For future crimes by us.

But why now snatch the very heart of the Bill of Rights and throw it into the incinerator? You must have guessed why, and the Wall Street Journal was on it: “Under the new rules issued in March [2012],” Angwin reported, “the National Counterterrorism Center, known as NCTC, can obtain almost any database the government collects that it says is ‘reasonably believed’ to contain ‘terrorism information.’ The list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.”

“Reasonably believed”? By what criteria? And will those “suspicious” people even know they’re in one of these databases, which could conceivably stigmatize them for the rest of their lives? And since all of this is done secretly, these citizens will have no chance to defend themselves.

Did you know about this “forced retirement” of our Constitution? One former senior administration official told Angwin that it’s “breathtaking” in its scope. Of course, he didn’t reveal his name. And where was the rest of the media? I saw little about this elsewhere.

I have more questions on this sudden flashing red light vis-à-vis what has been eroding this self-governing republic’s very reason for being since 9/11: In how many of our classrooms have future voters been told about how Obama and Holder—along with Bush and Cheney before them—have wholly betrayed their oath of office to protect the Constitution? And if there have been any discussions, how many students or teachers are concerned about or even sensitive to what this country is turning into?

In one of the few other coverages of this rape of the Bill of Rights, Wired magazine posted on its website an article titled “Attorney General Secretly Granted Gov. Ability to Develop and Store Dossiers on Innocent Americans.” Author Kim Zetter pointed out that “the request to expand the [National Counterterrorism] center’s powers led to a heated debate at the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, with Mary Ellen Callahan—then-chief privacy officer for the Department of Homeland Security—leading the charge to defend civil liberties. Callahan argued that the new rules represented a ‘sea change’ and that every interaction a citizen would have with the government in the future would be ruled by the underlying question, is that person a terrorist?

“Callahan lost her battle, however, and subsequently left her job, though it’s not known if her struggle over the NCTC debate played a role in her decision to leave.”

Have there been any related resignations from the Obama Administration, whose blatant disregard for privacy is making America more like China and Iran than what used to be an admired land of liberty?

I’m intensely interested in whether there have been any classroom or workplace debates on this throttling of who we are. Then again, how many Americans even remember who we’re supposed to be?

If Eric Holder hasn’t already added me to one of his lists of “suspicious” citizens, I expect he already knows my address.


The FBI’s Accelerating War on Freedom

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

Among the chief celebrators of the Presidential reelection of the most voracious Big Brother in our history was the FBI, Barack Obama’s tireless partner in putting this country under ubiquitous surveillance. But like the master spy in the White House, the FBI’s head honcho has yet to be satisfied.

Robert Mueller’s zeal has not waned since his May 9, 2012, appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, prompting this comment by’s Stephen Lendman: “America now wages war on freedom. It’s perilously close to vanishing. One more major domestic terror attack may end it. Mueller wants unrestricted power to act.”

He nearly has limitless power and multidimensional resources. In light of the fact that the FBI’s tracking of us was never raised in 2012’s Presidential debates, I expect very few Americans remember that, in the final weeks of the George W. Bush Administration, then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey issued “Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations.” As Lendman bristled, “Anyone may be investigated for any reason or none
at all.”

No wonder President Obama extended Mueller’s term until September 4, 2013. And will he replace his shadowy cohort then?

Having rated an FBI file back in the 1960s, “Watch Hentoff,” I in turn watch the FBI continually. I am horrified by its chronic lawlessness, and so is, whose monthly reports I never miss. The Defending Dissent Foundation’s vigilant website made me aware of a nationwide initiative on “Suspicious Activity Reporting.”

It “encourages or requires police to collect information about a long list of legal activities that are considered ‘suspicious,’ including taking pictures (either of police, other security personnel or facilities, buildings or infrastructure).”

Of course, the FBI can do that too. Say an agent sees someone photographing a New York City police officer slamming a black teenager against a wall because he looked “suspicious.” Anyone snapping such a picture to show how evil U.S. police are just might—thanks to law enforcement’s tendency to overreact—be connected to an organization supporting terrorism.

As reported, here’s what happened when Mueller’s agents and local cops banded together in the Pacific Northwest on July 27, 2012: “Dozens of police and FBI agents dressed in paramilitary gear and carrying assault rifles staged a predawn raid on several activist homes…in Seattle, Olympia and Portland, and the search warrant listed ‘Anti-government or anarchist literature or material’ among the items to be seized.”

The FBI has also wielded its ever-expanding powers in Boston, Massachusetts, where I grew up and where my reporting and commentary on radio station WMEX caught the attention of the city police and the Feds. But I never thought that having a passionate attachment to the First Amendment would generate as much official hostility there as it does today. reported that Boston police “have been caught compiling intelligence reports and incident reports on peaceful protests, logging them under the heading of Criminal Activity with the labels ‘Groups–Extremist’ and ‘Homeland Security–Domestic.'”

The ACLU of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild have documents and video-surveillance tapes revealing that “officers assigned to the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) at the Boston Police Department are collecting and keeping information about constitutionally protected speech and political activity…we don’t know how far and wide the information was shared.”

As disclosed, an “‘Intelligence Report’ on an antiwar speech at a church was kept for over five years. … It is clear from the report that police had infiltrated meetings of the peace coalition, or had access to meeting notes or minutes.”

I attended Boston Latin School. It was founded in 1635, and one of my fellow alumni was a key enflamer of the American Revolution, Samuel Adams. If he, the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence that spread the factual reasons for the Declaration of Independence throughout the colonies were still with us, their grievances would include what the FBI is up to: illegally spying on millions of law-abiding citizens.

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