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The Clinton legacy, sans Lewinsky

As the House passed the two articles of impeachment, the criers of "Coup d'etat!" and "Sexual McCarthyism!" somehow failed to mention that William Jefferson Clinton is, in addition, a serial violator of the Bill of Rights, among other parts of the Constitution.

These other attacks on the Constitution are not impeachable offenses because the framers could not have imagined them.

For example, the president has not been so distracted by the exposure of his cover-up of the Monica Lewinsky matter as to forgo a raid on the Fourth Amendment.

On Oct. 20, he signed the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1999, which has a provision for roving wiretaps. A law permitting roving wiretaps has been the ardent desire of FBI Director Louis Freeh and the president, but the roving-wiretap language did not appear in either version of the Intelligence Authorization bill that passed the House and Senate.

That language was slipped into the conference report by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Altamonte Springs. It has become law without hearings or public debate. So much for the people's democratic process _ a mantra intoned these days by the president's protectors.

The Fourth Amendment came into being because the framers were still smarting from the abuse of the general search warrants used by British customs officers to search Colonial homes and businesses at will. And that's why the Fourth Amendment requires law-enforcement agents to get a warrant, based on probable cause of criminal activity, that must "particularly describe the place to be searched or the persons or things to be seized."

A wiretap is a search and seizure of communications on a targeted phone. Since 1986, a very limited multipoint wiretap has been permitted if the target shows a clear intent to evade a conventional wiretap. Under the new Clinton law, a specific intent is no longer required. Now the person subject to a roving wiretap will be followed, and all telephones to which he is "reasonably proximate" will be tapped.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which led the fight against this offense to the Constitution, points out that this includes telephones in the private residences of a subject's friends, neighbors and business associates.

Under the new law, the FBI may listen to a phone even if the owner of the phone or his family _ and not the target of the investigation _ is using it.

In 1997, each time a federal or state electronic-surveillance operation was performed, an average of 2,081 conversations by 197 persons were intercepted.

The president's attack on the Fourth Amendment is the latest episode in the long history of his assaults on the Constitution. His 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act has so weakened the constitutional right of habeas corpus that innocent prisoners on death row _ convicted since 1996 _ will be executed because they now have only one year to get a federal court, under habeas corpus, to review the fairness of the state trial that doomed them.

Clinton is also responsible, along with a majority of Congress, for that part of the 1996 act that authorizes the deportation of aliens, including long-term legal resident aliens, suspected of having ties to terrorism _ without the defendants or their lawyers being allowed to see the evidence against them.

The president, in addition, exerted persistent pressure on the Justice Department to convince the Supreme Court to affirm the Communications Decency Act, which would have censored everything on the Internet that was insufficiently "decent" for children. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Clinton's summary dismissal of the First Amendment.

His current defenders, as they blame his present plight on "right-wing extremists," do not mention his legacy as the president in this century who has inflicted the most harm on our constitutional rights and liberties.

Nor did the liberals who opposed the Vietnam War speak out against the killing of innocent civilians in Iraq on the eve of the impeachment vote.

What is most disturbing for the future, however, is that the ceaseless polls showing widespread popular approval of Clinton also reflect popular ignorance of the Constitution that his defenders invoke to save him.

Syndicated columnist Nat Hentoff is an authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.

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