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Top 10 Reasons the Clinton Administration Wasn't So Hot on Civil Liberties Issues

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Civil libertarians concerned about the Bush administration sometimes pine for the Clinton years. What usually gets lost in the shuffle is the fact that the Clinton administration was almost as oppressive--and that was during peacetime.

1. Clintonus Rex

Everyone likes to talk about the Bush administration's executive power grab under the auspices of the unitary executive theory, but not too many people remember President Clinton's own attempt to increase the power of the presidency at the expense of civil liberties safeguards.

2. Big Bubba is Watching

When President Bush admitted to violating the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 with his secret wiretapping program, critics suggested that it was a blatant and unprecedented act of executive gall. Blatant, yes. Unprecedented, no. The Clinton administration violated FISA during its warrantless search of accused spy Aldrich Ames, and (in the pre-Bush years) was described by ACLU legislative director Laura Murphy as "the most wiretap-friendly administration in history."

3. Torture to Go

Civil libertarians are up in arms over the Bush administration's practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the United States outsources its interrogation of international terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture. And we certainly should be--but it was the Clinton administration that pioneered this despicable practice.

4. BATF in the Belfry

No domestic law enforcement group inspired more civil liberties concerns during the 1990s than the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), aka the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE), which sometimes dealt with domestic terrorism on a "shoot first, ask questions later" basis. Although the group has since been reformed, it still strikes fear in the hearts of gun rights activists everywhere--and its power, and abuses of power, peaked during the Clinton years.

5. Bowdlerizing the Internet

You think the FCC's anti-indecency crusade is bad? Well, if Janet Jackson had flashed her nipple jewelry online, it could have meant a two-year prison sentence. Such was life under the Communications Decency Act, which promised to make the Internet G-rated at all costs. Democrats blame it all on the Republican Congress, but it was the president who chose to defend the awful anti-indecency provisions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which mercifully struck them down).

6. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Lesbian and gay activists didn't ask much from President Clinton when they voted for him in November 1992. They knew better than to expect marriage rights, or even a civil unions policy. But what President Clinton promised was one thing he could do without asking Congress: Strike down the ban on gays in the military. He changed his mind after the election--choosing to restrict the way gay soldiers are investigated, but leave the ban intact. It remains in place to this day.

7. Uncle Sam's Offering Plate

Church-state separationists are understandably concerned about the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which has put billions into the pockets of religious organizations--in open defiance of the First Amendment's establishment clause. But who signed the legislation that created the faith-based initiative program in the first place? President Bill Clinton, as part of the 1996 welfare reform bill.

8. Throwing the Book at Immigrants

President Reagan granted amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants (so-called "illegal aliens"). President George W. Bush said that mass deportation of immigrants is not a humane option. But President Clinton signed a 1996 bill making life more difficult for undocumented immigrants, while at the same time choosing to make it possible for millions more to enter the country and face horrific exploitation at the hands of U.S. corporations.

9. Defending the Sanctity of Marriage, Between Cigars

It's horrible how our conservative president has politicized the issue of same-sex marriage. Know what's even more horrible? He's only following his liberal predecessor's example. When he happily signed the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, President Clinton shattered the hopes of countless lesbian and gay couples who had been inspired by the possibility of marriage rights in Hawaii--and made gay marriage a viable "culture war" issue to be exploited by politicians for years to come.

10. The Prisoner's Dilemma

The "tough on crime" stance of President Bill Clinton reinstated the federal death penalty, limited appeals (resulting in the execution of an untold number of innocent death row inmates), and made it possible for mentally handicapped 12-year-olds to face life in prison without parole. In this instance, as in so many others, it's hard to imagine how a conservative Republican could have done any worse.
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