Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) was furious. Once again, the Bush Administration managed to subvert not only American civil liberties, but the democratic process as well. Nadler, one of the nation’s leading advocates of social justice, and whose district includes the area where the World Trade Center once stood, called the Republican leadership “shameful,” their tactics “corrupt.”
“For all of their talk of patriotism, the Republicans showed something quite different,” said Nadler. It was nothing less than “an abuse of power more likely to be seen in a police state than in a democratic society,” he said.
In the 15 minutes usually allocated to voting on an issue, the House apparently had passed legislation to cut off funding for enforcement of Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. Section 215, one of the most controversial sections of one of America’s most controversial laws, permits federal law enforcement, without going through the common judicial system, to grab “any tangible thing” in any investigation. This could include taking the sales records from bookstores, demanding from libraries the records of who checked out which book, and forcing internet service providers to release e-mails not just from suspects but from all persons the suspects contacted, thus dragging thousands of innocent persons into the FBI web. A “gag” order prohibits anyone from disclosing the FBI even asked for the information. In addition to liberals, thousands of prominent conservatives oppose the act. Among them are Newt Gingrich, former House speaker who engineered the mid-term Republican victory in 1994, and Bob Barr, a representative who was one of Bill Clinton’s harshest critics in impeachment hearings.
In March 2003, Rep. Bernie Sanders had introduced the Freedom to Read Protection Act (H.R. 1157) that would minimize or repeal Section 215; within a year it had more than 140 co-sponsors, extraordinarily high for any proposed legislation. “One of the cornerstones of our democracy is our right of Americans to criticize their government and to read printed materials without fear of government monitoring and intrusion,” Sanders said at the time he submitted his bill. More than three dozen of the nation’s largest organizations of librarians, booksellers, journalists, and publishers filed a joint statement that declared their support for the proposed bill.
When it appeared it was stalled, Sanders and Reps. Nadler, John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), C. L. Otter (R-Idaho), and Ron Paul (R-Texas) tried another way to limit the PATRIOT Act. To the Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations Bill of 2005, they proposed an amendment to cut off funding to the Department of Justice for searches conducted under Section 215. The amendment didn’t diminish the government’s capacity to investigate possible terrorism. The federal government could still obtain records, as long as it went into a court of law and showed there was “probable cause” to request such records.
But, even if the amendment passed, it might only have been symbolic. In the Summer, the House passed legislation proposed by Otter, 309-118, to cut off funding for Section 213, the “sneak-and-peak” section that allows the government to raid a business or home, without the owner present, and to delay for months before even notifying them that materials were seized. The vote never moved forward in the Senate.
As with the Otter Amendment, it was unlikely the Senate would accept the House amendment about Section 215. Further, the Department of Justice could use the equally-restrictive National Security Letters, which weren’t subject of the amendment prohibition, to gain access to records; or, it could also manipulate its own budget in several ways to disguise use of funding to enforce Section 215, especially since the Department has an obstructionist attitude, except when it was politically beneficial to the Bush Administration, to release of any data about enforcement of that section.
What the Republican leadership did with the Sanders amendment was indicative of the Administration’s tactics. A day before the vote, the President’s budget office sent a memo to House members warning them if they passed anything to weaken the PATRIOT Act, the President would veto the $39.8 billion bill. It would be the first veto in the President’s term.
By the end of the 15-minute voting period, even with the President’s assurances of a veto, the amendment had 219 votes for passage, 201 against. But, the Republican leadership at that point held the voting open for an additional 23 minutes while Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), House majority leader, and his aides, bullied Republicans into changing their votes. (The House leadership had previously extended a vote by three hours to arm-twist members to reverse their vote opposing the President’s Medicare package.)
Among the tactics on the Section 215 amendment, the leadership suddenly produced a letter written by the Department of Justice that claimed a member of a terrorist group tied to al-Qaeda used the Internet at a public library. There were no specifics. Since the Department of Justice continually claimed it had “no interest” in going to libraries, how it learned of computer use at a library leads one to question if the Department lied to the people or if it lied to the Congress. The final vote, a 210-210 tie, doomed the amendment.
In public statements, members of Congress expressed the same outrage as Jerry Nadler. “You win some, some get stolen,” Otter, a conservative Republican, said. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.) the House minority leader, lashed out at “Republican leaders [who] once again undermined democracy,” and declared them to be “thoroughly un-American.” Sanders called the vote “an outrage” and “an insult to democracy.”
Another representative was even more hostile to the tactics of the House leadership: “[It is] the most heavy-handed, arrogant abuse of power in the 10 years I have been here. . . . [The Speaker of the House is] a heavy-handed son of a bitch and he doesn’t know any other way to operate, and he will do anything he can to win at any price. There is no sense of comity left.”
However, it wasn’t July 2004 but October 1987, and the profane-enhanced tirade was directed not against current Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) but against Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas), who had briefly adjourned the House to allow time to “convince” a couple of Democrats to switch their votes on a pending budget bill. The man who had scoured Wright, identified by Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) after the vote on Section 215, was Rep. Dick Cheney (R-Wyoming)—the same Dick Cheney who, with George W. Bush, campaigned on a mantra of bringing civility back to the White House, and who less than a month before the vote on Section 215, in the Senate of the United States, told Patrick Leahy to do something anatomically impossible to himself.
One thousand American soldiers are now dead; more than 5,000 are wounded, some permanently disabled, because of Bush’s lies about weapons of mass destruction poised to attack America, where terrorists really were being protected, and of his egotistical belief that he is the world’s commander-in-chief. This administration’s policies about the underclass, the environment, health care, worker rights, and dozens of other critical and important domestic issues, has done far more to destroy this nation, and the respect of the Oval office than anything Bill Clinton ever did. The tactics used against an amendment to restore civil liberties is indicative of why this Administration doesn’t deserve a second term.
Walter Brasch, professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University, is an award-winning journalist and author. A chapter about the PATRIOT Act appears in the recently-published Big Bush Lies (RiverWood Books), edited by Jerry ‘Politex’ Barrett. Brasch’s 14th book, to be published about November by Peter Lang Publishing, is America’s Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government’s Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights. You may contact Brasch at email@example.com.
Other Articles by Walter Brasch