Defending a Constitution Under Attack

With the First, Fourth, Fifth, 14th, and 17th amendments all coming under attack from one quarter or another, there's recently been a renewed focus on civil liberties. TAP spoke with Shahid Buttar, a civil-rights lawyer and executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, as well as a poet and singer, about the administration's record on these issues, what the FBI is up to, and even the state of music and politics.

A lot of people on the left were hoping that Barack Obama would wipe away everything George W. Bush had done to restrict civil liberties. Obviously, that hasn't happened. But what would you say is the best thing the Obama administration has done in this area, and the most glaring omission in its policies?

I'd say the single best thing the president has done in this arena is to renounce extraordinary/coercive interrogation. Ending torture is a big deal, period.

Having said that, the failure to impose accountability has invited more torture in the future by eroding the international legal prohibition and effectively declaring that it's OK to consider and repeat as a policy matter. While I'm disturbed by the continuing, and expanding, surveillance regime, I think torture demonstrates the best -- and worst -- of the administration's performance so far.

Has the fact that there's a Democrat in the White House -- and one who has engaged in high-profile legislative battles over things like health care and financial reform -- taken threats to civil liberties off progressives' radar screens?

I hope not but fear that has indeed been the case. The debate over the PATRIOT Act here offers an illustrative example. When the president -- who campaigned against it in no uncertain terms -- caved to the intelligence agencies by supporting a "temporary" reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act over congressional objections last fall, it shifted the landscape and left members of Congress who do care about civil liberties on an isolated fringe.

How this is all playing out in the popular arena is unfortunately less clear to me. It does strike me that lots of people still care about civil liberties -- only increasingly that voice is coming from a conservative/libertarian perspective. The populist fury over continued government surveillance is still there but is being articulated more by the Tea Party and its supporters than the anti-war/progressive/green side of the spectrum, which was in the lead under the Bush administration. 

You've been particularly critical of the FBI in recent months -- you've charged that it has in effect created a new version of the notorious COINTELPRO, in which it engaged in a concerted campaign to infiltrate and undermine left-leaning organizations through the 1950s and 1960s. What is the FBI doing now that most people are probably unaware of?

Undercover infiltration -- what the bureau calls "undisclosed participation" -- was a cornerstone of the COINTELPRO era and has come back again in full force. Like then, the FBI is subject to few, if any, checks and is operating in complete secrecy. Even members of Congress who have sought more transparency here have been denied. It's especially bizarre that the legal standard under which infiltrations are conducted remains secret. It makes sense for operational details to be non-public, but for the legal rules to be secret never makes sense and is an open invitation to abuse -- especially given the bureau's unfortunate recurring history in this area.

FBI Director [Robert] Mueller admitted in late July that the FBI currently pursues infiltration activities limited neither by evidence, which many of us had known, given its exploratory infiltrations of mosques around the country, nor even suspicion, which he'd previously been careful to insinuate as the limiting principle.

We've periodically heard about the abuse of national security letters, which give the government the ability to demand things like library records without a warrant. Is the abuse still going on, and what kind of prospects are there for reining it in?

When the Justice Department's inspector general studied the bureau's use of NSLs, in 2006, 2008, and then again this spring, he released findings demonstrating wanton violations. This year's report was especially revealing: Not only did the bureau abuse NSLs, but, with support from the Obama White House, the FBI also contrived a new category of information demands called "exigent letters," which basically promised future NSLs that never came.

There has, essentially, been a breakdown in law and order at the bureau -- yet despite its documented abuses, the FBI is now seeking even greater NSL powers beyond those expanded by the PATRIOT Act.

Recent events -- the controversy over the Cordoba House in New York, talk of repealing the 14th Amendment -- seem to show that lots of Americans think constitutional rights only apply to people who have the same skin color as them, speak the same language as them, or worship the same god as them. Is that something that's inevitable, or is there a way to convince people to care about the restriction of someone else's rights?

It's tricky, because understanding how constitutional rights apply to oneself can require the ability to think in abstract terms, or to step into someone's shoes, which many people fooled by the kind of fascist nonsense you mentioned aren't able, or perhaps are simply unwilling, to do.

I think the [Department of Homeland Security] threat reports last spring, suggesting scrutiny of service members returning from deployment abroad, ironically helped in that people outside the progressive left came to see their interests implicated for the first time. Similarly, when the Missouri Information Analysis Center flagged Ron Paul supporters as potential security threats, it demonstrated to other parts of society how they also are threatened.

The Bill of Rights Defense Committee has put a lot of effort into helping local municipalities create ordinances that in effect establish zones where civil liberties are intact. Can you explain how this works?

During the Bush administration, BORDC helped coordinate the passage of local resolutions opposing the PATRIOT Act in over 400 cities and towns across the country. Today, we're working with coalitions in about a dozen cities and towns, aiming to secure local legislation to stop racial and ethnic profiling, while imposing transparency and limits on the involvement of local police in surveillance and immigration enforcement.

In addition to being a civil-rights lawyer leading a nonprofit organization, you're also a hip-hop artist. How would you assess the state of political music today, both creatively and in terms of its impact, compared to earlier periods like the '50s and '60s?

The difference between music today, versus during previous eras in American culture, is vast and profound. In the early part of the 20th century, jazz music helped incubate a political culture that ultimately formed the backbone of the civil-rights movement. In the '60s, it was folk music that helped spread a revolutionary consciousness. In the early days of hip-hop, a radical voice favoring human- and civil rights, equal economic opportunity, and police accountability brought those issues to the front of the national debate.

And today, hip-hop and most other artists tend to raise the same trivial themes that have distracted people for generations from the challenges that actually confront us. To be fair, this isn't limited to hip-hop.

This is no time to be silent. Musicians, athletes, and actors all have a crucial role to play as representatives of their respective fans and communities. All Americans, in fact, share that responsibility. Ultimately, even if celebrities seem mostly disinclined to raise their voices, a lot of concerned individuals in the grass roots remain willing to do so. It's from them that I draw hope for our nation's future.

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