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Nat Hentoff: Congress rises to protect separation of powers

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At long last, enough members of Congress have rediscovered their primary reason for being there at this defining time in U.S. history — to rescue the disappearing Constitution.

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Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who is a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, is joining with Colorado Democrat Sen. Mark Udall to "introduce legislation that would limit the federal government’s ability to collect data on Americans without a demonstrated link to terrorism or espionage" ("Udall, Wyden Propose Limiting the Federal Government’s Ability to Collect Vast Amounts of Data on Americans," wyden.senate.gov, June 14).

No doubt stirred by the recent revelations of Edward Snowden, Wyden and Udall are moving to fully awaken Americans and others of the U.S. government’s limitless spying on us.

Furthermore, Wyden is insisting on public hearings because, as he said last month, "the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives" ("Sen. Wyden: Clapper didn’t give ‘straight answer’ on NSA programs," Aaron Blake, The Washington Post, June 11).

But why stop there? Barack Obama should be in the witness chair as well.

And there is also a strong bipartisan drive to reopen the Patriot Act, which was passed in a panic by Congress soon after 9/11.

The law became a primary source of the subsequent dismembering of the Constitution through its approval of secret surveillance.

Udall gets to the American Revolutionary core of his and Wyden’s legislative mission: "The NSA’s collection of millions of Americans’ phone call records is the type of overreach I have warned about for years ...

"We need to protect our national security, but we cannot lose sight of our constitutional liberties and the privacy rights of Americans" ("Support Builds for Udall, Wyden Proposal to Limit the Federal Government’s Ability to Collect Vast Amounts of Data on Americans," wyden.senate.gov, June 18).

Also aiming at the Patriot Act is a multi-dimensional lawsuit by the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union attacking the shadowy Obama administration’s omnivorous surveillance program as violating "the First Amendment rights of free speech and association as well as the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment" ("ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of NSA Phone Spying Program," aclu.org, June 11).

Exposing the dictatorial side of Obama is Alex Abdo, a staff attorney in the ACLU’s National Security Project: "The Constitution does not permit the suspicionless surveillance of every person in the country."

Unknown to most Americans, Congress’ 2011 extension of the Patriot Act for four more years deepened its spying powers on us with the cooperation of the mysterious FISA court.

From the American Bar Association’s Patriot Debates website (a sourceblog for the USA Patriot debate):

"Section 215 (of the Patriot Act) revises substantially the authority under the FISA for seizure of business records, including third-party records of individuals’ transactions and activities."

Previously, FISA Section 501 permitted the FBI to apply to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) for an order to seize business records of hotels, motels, car and truck rental agencies and storage rental facilities.

"Section 215 broadens that authority by eliminating any limitation on the types or businesses or entities whose records may be seized.

"In addition, the section expands the scope of the items that the FBI may obtain using this authority from ‘records’ to ‘any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents and other items).’"

And since this is no longer America:

"The recipient of the order may not disclose the fact that the FBI has sought or obtained records."

Furthermore, "There is no requirement for an evidentiary or factual showing and the judge has little discretion in reviewing an application (from the FBI)."

Have any of you learned about that in any school you have attended?

Courses in our schools should be given on how our American identity has been stolen from us.

Students should be taught how to make sure the tactics of President Obama don’t carry over to the next administration, no matter its political affiliation.

In the meantime, I shall keep reporting on how effective these and other legislative actions are at restoring the rule of American law.

I will also continue to focus on a part of American education that has received too little attention: students not only learning about and identifying with American history, but also becoming actively involved in decision-making in their schools as well as in their neighborhoods, cities, states and country.

In my book, "Living the Bill of Rights" (University of California Press), I bring forth patriot educator John A. Howard:

"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 sacrifices which produced it.

"We have been engaged in a kind of unilateral 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 got re-elected.

My main job now is to focus on how we can keep future Obamas out of the Oval Office. And that, of course, is your job, too, as committed Americans.

Nat Hentoff is a renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.

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