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Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Nat Hentoff
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. My guest tonight is the most passionate defender of the Bill of Rights I know and the most ardent advocate of jazz. Nat Hentoff writes regularly for the VILLAGE VOICE. He's been writing there since 1957.

He's been a columnist for the WASHINGTON POST and a reporter for the NEW YORKER. He now writes for the VILLAGE VOICE and the WASHINGTON TIMES. And his column is syndicated to over 250 papers around the country.

His most recent book includes SPEAKING FREELY: A MEMOIR, LIVING THE BILL OF RIGHTS and the Nat Hentoff reader. He has a new book coming out this year on the Bill of Rights. Welcome, Nat Hentoff to NOW.

NAT HENTOFF: Thank you sir.

BILL MOYERS: Does the Constitution extend to terrorists who want to kill us?

NAT HENTOFF: You know, I'm glad-- that leads right into my favorite Supreme Court decision. In 1866, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, during the Civil War he suspended Habeas Corpus--


NAT HENTOFF: That is if the government puts you in prison, you have a right under Habeas Corpus to go to court and have them justify why you are there. It is the oldest English-speaking right. It goes back to the Magna Carta. He suspended it.

He also set up military tribunals. And the military put into those tribunals editors, reporters, just plain dissenters to his policies. And he-- he arrested at least a quarter of the Maryland State Legislature because they disagreed with him. This was his time--

BILL MOYERS: Some would say that was a justified--

NAT HENTOFF: Well, Mr. Ashcroft might think so. But finally when the Supreme Court decided it was safe to say something about this. In a case called "Ex Parte Milligan" they declared what he had done was unconstitutional. He says-- they said the civilian courts were still open.

And there's this wonderful phrase, "The Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people equally in war and peace. And covers with the shield of it's protection all classes of men at all times and under all circumstances." So that's-- means that the Constitution applies to anybody.

BILL MOYERS: Including terrorists who are trying to kill us?

NAT HENTOFF: Suspected terrorists-- if you have somebody you believe is a terrorist under our system of law, you have to prove it.

BILL MOYERS: But here's the issue. None of us have ever lived through the kind of war we are experiencing right now. The war against terrorism is not like any war we have ever fought.

We don't know where the enemy is. You and I and every civilian in this country are targets. The threat doesn't go away. Secrecy is essential to fighting it. And it's possible we can never announce victory. Now what does this do to the Bill of Rights in a-- in a strange war like this?

NAT HENTOFF: As soon as the President, the Secretary of State, everybody in the administration, including the Attorney General address this, told the nation about it. And repeatedly, every one of them said, "Whatever we do for security," and they mentioned everything you've said, "We will do within the bounds of the Constitution." That's a direct quote.

Because what we are fighting to preserve in this war-- and Colin Powell said it was a war for civilization. What we are trying to preserve are our freedoms which they're trying to destroy. So how can you then say, despite all-- and then, true, we've never this sort of situation. That's when the Constitution, as the Supreme Court said, has to stand for all of us.

BILL MOYERS: If you were in government now, what would you do about the mosques where you have some reason to believe extremist ideas are being encouraged?

NAT HENTOFF: What I would do is what William Sessions, former head of the FBI, former head of the CIA said in criticizing the Attorney General's dragnet approach to this sort of thing. "You do what you always do. You investigate. You have a lead. And you follow the lead."

"If you go in on the premise that everybody who is in a mosque or anybody-- everybody who is in a church is suspect, then we are all suspects. And this is not longer a Constitutional democracy."

BILL MOYERS: But isn't there--

NAT HENTOFF: Because you-- the-- you know the Attorney General said, "There is no expectation of privacy in a public place like a church or a political gathering." But there is no expectation that the person next to you is an FBI agent recording what you're saying and the fact that you are there.

BILL MOYERS: Isn't there some natural selectivity, though, of suspicion when say all of the hijackers on 9/11-- came from the same faith, came from the same part of the world.

NAT HENTOFF: That's all the more reason to be very careful in your investigating procedures to find out what's going on.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote a chilling column the other day about what you call "designated killers."

NAT HENTOFF: Yeah. There was story in the New York Times last November I believe which said that the President had authorized the CIA to set up a target list of terrorists-- suspected terrorists who they were authorized to kill. And there was a-- bombing of-- by a robotic airplane.


NAT HENTOFF: The Pres-- a CIA airplane of a car in Yemen. They killed everybody in the car. Turned out one of the those killed was an American citizen. His name was Kamal Derwish.

BILL MOYERS: From-- upstate New York.

NAT HENTOFF: Upstate New York.


NAT HENTOFF: Now as David Wise, who was a veteran reporter on security in intelligence said it Time Magazine, this is a man who was killed, an American citizen. Afterwards the government said, "Well, he was in enemy combat." He never appeared before a court. There were never any charges against him. We don't know whether he was or not.

BILL MOYERS: There were actually six people in the car. All of them were killed--


BILL MOYERS: --including this-- American citizen--


BILL MOYERS: --under suspicion.

NAT HENTOFF: But the other thing is - so long as we are functioning under the Constitution, we have to have a reason to kill. And that means the Bill of Rights applies as the Supreme Court said in 1866, to all men, using the term generically. And that includes everybody within our power to either arrest or kill them.

BILL MOYERS: Let me show you something that I brought to the studio-- on this very subject. This is an excerpt from the President's State of the Union message in January. And listen to the reaction he got when he says what he says.

PRESIDENT BUSH (FROM TAPE): All told, more than 3,000 suspected terrorists have been arrested in many countries. Many others have met a different fate. Let's put it this way - they are no longer a problem to the United States and our friends and allies. (Applause.)

BILL MOYERS: What the President is saying is that we have identified certain people who are threats to this country. We've put 'em on a list. We want them to be captured if they can, but if they can't be captured, in effect what he's saying is we want them killed.


BILL MOYERS: --and they applauded.

NAT HENTOFF: I know. They--

NAT HENTOFF: Now this either indicates one of two things. They rose out of respect for the man who's holding the office or, more likely, like most of the populace, they have not been educated as to what kind of country we are-- why we are different from those countries that do engage in targeted assassinations of people they suspect are terrorists.

BILL MOYERS: But this is a savage world someone would say Mr. Hentoff. This is a savage world.

NAT HENTOFF: What do we stand for, then? Are we going to, as the Attorney General and the President kept saying from the very beginning, are we preserving our liberties as the most-- the oldest Constitutional democracy in the world which is based on not targeted killing, but defending ourselves proactively without assassinating people who may not be guilty.

BILL MOYERS: But the Bush people would tell you, I think, that these-- this is a new kind of war as you and I were discussing. These are enemy combatants, not protected by the Bill of Rights, who can be picked up and held in a military prison on the President's orders or killed if necessarily.

That-- the Bill of Rights always expands and shrinks in times of crisis. Take the first World War. The Palmer Raids against the su-- suspected terrorists. Take what happened in the-- the-- the Japanese in the beginning of World War II. That-- extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. What's your response to that?

NAT HENTOFF: Well, in-- in retrospect, many Americans regretted deeply what happened when our liberties were crushed during these times. But the other part of that is if indeed, and I believe this to be true, as you said we don't know when this war will end. This war on terrorism.

So that means that what seems extraordinary now will become customary. And that means that the next generation, kid now, will grow up feeling these are the normal restrictions. Then what happens to the liberties that we are defending?

BILL MOYERS: Well, but this is a war and the President is Commander-In-Chief.

NAT HENTOFF: The President-- and I say this with respect, 'cause I don't disagree with everything George Bush does. The President, whatever his education was, it did not concern civil liberties. When he was governor of Texas, he not only was the chief executioner of the United States under a system whereby the appellate courts were barely functioning, if at all.

There was a moment when the Texas legislature, which, as you know, is usually very factious and divided, was united unanimously. They wanted to put in for the first time in the state-wide legal defender system so that people who have no resources could get decent due process representation. George W. Bush vetoed that bill.

So I'm not surprised that he says what he says. He believes it. Ashcroft believes it. Ashcroft went to the University of Chicago law school, very good law school. But the Bill of Rights never quite reached him.

BILL MOYERS: Let me ask you, for the sake of our viewers, to be very specific. What concerns you most right now-- about our civil liberties?

NAT HENTOFF: What concerns me most is two things. One, most people do not know, even to this day, what is in the USA Patriot Act.

And the reason is how do we find out these things? The media, cable, broadcast television has been very remiss. Most of these stories become one or two day stories. So how are people going to know-- most people, that their liberties are in danger?

Now there is a subtext to this, which I've been obsessed with for years. The teaching of why we are Americans, why we are different from other countries in terms of our liberties against the government, any government, is taught so badly in the schools, from middle schools through graduate schools. You can tell that by the-- Jay Leno's questions on-- on-- on the Tonight Show. You can tell that by the surveys.

Most Americans don't know about the-- the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment. All these amendments that are being vitiated by these acts.

But that's why we need the press. And the press, whether it's because they're caught up in the 24 hour news cycle or their editors - their assignment editors get distracted by carjackings and murders and such, we do not --the people do not know what's going on in terms of their own liberties and what's happening to them.

When the find out-- now the Bill of Rights Defense Committee--

BILL MOYERS: What are they?

NAT HENTOFF: --is an example of the resistance that's growing in this country. In North Hampton, Massachusetts, in February of last year, a group of people, retirees, students, lawyers, doctors, stud-- whatever, they got together and they formed a Bill of Rights Defense Committees to protect North Hampton from what John Ashcroft was doing.

And they eventually got the city council to pass a resolution which has now been passed-- it's equivalent, in 40 towns and cities around the country. From Tarboro, North Carolina-- it's a small, working-class town, to Seattle, one of the most recent big cities to-- and all these resolutions say essentially the same thing. They say to their Congressmen, "We are aware of what's happening to our liberties. We wish you would tell us what-- how this-- these bills are being implemented in our communities."

BILL MOYERS: So what should citizens today do?

NAT HENTOFF: Well, if they wanna find out about how to join these committees, they have a web site. Bill of Rights Defense They can tell you how to-- what-- what they do, how to connect, et cetera.

And again, these are people across the political spectrum. These are not just liberals. When the ACLU put together a coalition to fight-- unfortunately they failed, the USA Patriot Bill, they had-- they had the people for the American Way, the Gun Owners of America, the Free Congress Foundation, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum.

Conservatives in Congress -- conservatives who are Libertarians have been much more important than the Democratic leadership. Bob Barr, Dick Armey (PH), who unfortunately are no longer there.

BILL MOYERS: Both of 'em are gone now.

NAT HENTOFF: Both of 'em are gone.

BILL MOYERS: Barr was a Republican from Georgia. Armey was a Libertarian Republican--


BILL MOYERS: --from Texas.

NAT HENTOFF: And it was Dick Armey, when he was the hou-- House Majority Leader, who se-- stripped from the-- the Homeland Security Bill something that had been put in by the Justice Department and approved by the President. It was called Operation Tips.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, yeah.

NAT HENTOFF: And that would have allowed servicemen, people who get into your homes, truck drivers. People who you see in your ordinary day of life. If they had any suspicion, otherwise undefined, that you were somehow connected to terrorism, there was a hot-- line in Washington they'd report you. And you'd wind up in a database.

And Dick Armey said, "I am not gonna allow Americans to spy on other Americans." To-- you know like Cuba or China where they're in neighborhood committees. Not-- not Dick-- not Tom Daschle, not Dick Gephardt. It was Dick Armey who said that. And he stopped it.

BILL MOYERS: Now you you know about the Total Information Awareness System?

NAT HENTOFF: Yes, indeed.

BILL MOYERS: Run by General-- Admiral-- John Poindexter of Iran Contra fame who was convicted of lying to Congress and destroying documents-- 15 years ago. He's returned to be put in charge of this new agency.

NAT HENTOFF: The most-- you know what-- the difference between this administration and all others is that no administration in our history has had the technological capacity to spy on all of us. Now this is an example. Total Awareness Information System means that in the Department of Defense, they will have data mining. They will take the data, these huge collections of information from private commercial databanks, from all our intelligence backs, which are now converged under the Homeland Security Act.

And they will be able to track every American, in terms of your medical records, your credit card records. Even the movies you pick out on Pay Per View or the EZ Pass, et cetera. I mean it's-- this technology is awesome.

And what are the protections against this? And-- and it was stopped-- it has been stopped, which shows you there is resistance. Temporarily and --

BILL MOYERS: Temporarily.

NAT HENTOFF: --temporarily I-- the--

BILL MOYERS: The Senate-- the Senate decided not to fund this program--


BILL MOYERS: --but there's still contingency money that is running it at this moment.

NAT HENTOFF: Oh, yeah. And it went into the conference committee in the House. This I found interesting. Even the conservative Republicans who are not Libertarians said, "Hey, this is troubling. We're not gonna-- we're gonna go along with this suspension."

I think some of them of a certain age may have remembered that J. Edgar Hoover had private dossiers on members of Congress. They too would then have been part of the Total Information Awareness System.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think someone's watching you right now? I don't mean our audience out there?

NAT HENTOFF: Well, well, listen, when I wrote my memoirs-Speaking Freely- I didn't remember what towns in Russia my parents had come from. And they were dead, I couldn't find out. I do remember the name of the first job I had when I was 11. I got my FBI file.

It was right there. I was thinking of-- of dedicating the book to J. Edgar Hoover. I mean they had all kinds of incorrect information. Wildly incorrect. Oh, sure. Anybody who dissents, especially these days, is likely, especially when you have this technology, to be in a file. I expect you are.

BILL MOYERS: Last question, what writers influenced you? What made you what you are? What writers did it for you?

NAT HENTOFF: Well, I think two people especially. Charles Dickens, who was by the way a reporter before he was a novelist. And that explains why his novels are so detailed. Dickens had great, great suspicion of authoritarian government.

And the key person who influenced me was George Orwell. I read 1984 and I-- I'll quote Orrin Hatch, who was a conservative who told me the--


NAT HENTOFF: --the other day-- right. Orrin Hatch said to me, "When I was reading 1984 I could never rememb-- have imagined that it would ever become real." And then he said, "Here we have the Total Information Awareness System." And Orrin Hatch said, "That's going to far."

And there was one other person who influenced me greatly. I read him when I was 15. Arthur Kessler wrote a book called DARKNESS AT NOON about Stalinist Russia. It was a novel but it was a real case novel.

And what he taught me was that means and ends are central. If your means are corroded, your ends will be corroded. And if you're fighting to preserve liberty and you use end-- means, rather, that visciate-- that eviscerate our liberties, the end will be corroded too.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Nat Hentoff

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