In one significant respect, Bill Clinton's presidency has been a surprising disappointment and a grievous one. That is in his record on civil liberties.
This week Congress is likely to finish work on legislation gutting federal habeas corpus, the historic power of federal courts to look into the constitutionality of state criminal proceedings. Innocent men and women, convicted of murder in flawed trials, will be executed if that protection is gone.
And Clinton made it possible. With a nod and a wink, he allowed the habeas corpus measure to be attached to a counterterrorism bill that he wanted - a bill that has nothing to do with state prosecutions. House and Senate conferees are likely to finish work on the terrorism bill this week, and both houses to act on it. Last week Attorney General Janet Reno sent a long letter to the conferees. Reading it, one is struck by how insensitive the Clinton administration is to one after another long-established principle of civil liberties. The letter demands, for example, that the government be given power to deport aliens as suspected terrorists without letting them see the evidence against them - arguing for even harsher secrecy provisions than ones the House struck from the bill last month. It says there is no constitutional right to see the evidence in deportation proceedings, though the Supreme Court has held that there is. Reno denounces the House for rejecting a Clinton proposal that the attorney general be allowed to convert an ordinary crime into "terrorism" by certifying that it transcended national boundaries and was intended to coerce a government. Instead, in the House bill, the government would have to prove those charges to a judge and jury - a burden the Clinton administration does not want to bear. The Reno letter objects to "terrorists" being given rights. But that assumes guilt. The whole idea of our constitutional system is that people should have a fair chance to answer charges before they are convicted. Does Reno think we should ignore the Fourth and Fifth and Sixth amendments because they protect "criminals"? Does Clinton? Even before the terrorism bill, with its habeas corpus attack and numerous other repressive provisions, the administration had shown a cavalier disregard for civil liberties. …