Yale Bulletin and Calendar

April 23, 2004|Volume 32, Number 27















Margaret Warner

'There's right on both sides' of civil
liberties debate, journalist says

The war on terrorism following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 is a reminder that war always brings limitations on civil liberties, said journalist Margaret Warner, who gave this year's Gary Fryer Memorial Lecture at Yale on April 12.

"In every time of war there have been incursions on civil liberties," said Warner, senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS. Her visit to Yale was sponsored by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, which presents the annual Fryer Lecture.

Warner said U.S. presidents have always succeeded in curtailing civil liberties during wartime, and that foreigners or foreign-born citizens are usually the targets. Congress is generally supportive of presidents' efforts to limit civil liberties and the courts tend not to get involved, as they are "reluctant to second guess what they see as the president's constitutional authority in a time of war," she added.

Citing "All the Laws but One," an analysis of civil liberties in wartime by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Warner noted that Presidents John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt all took steps to curtail civil liberties in time of war. Lincoln, for example, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War and Roosevelt approved the interment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, she said.

Today we are debating the degree to which civil liberties should be curtailed as we fight terrorism in the wake of 9/11, the journalist told the audience.

"There is right on both sides," Warner said. "You can't have liberty without security. Just ask the 9/11 families or a woman who's afraid to walk down a darkened street at night. At the same time, if we have security but not liberty, then what do we have security for?"

President George Bush's administration has taken a number of steps, including the Patriot Act enacted by Congress, to fight terrorism that affect the civil liberties of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, she noted.

"Clearly, civil liberties have been challenged during this war, the administration wouldn't deny that," Warner said. "The debate is over whether the limitations are adequate, go too far, or don't go far enough. Why is the administration pushing these measures? To understand that, just take yourself back to September 12th and the consternation there was over the government's failure to prevent or deter the attacks. It was pretty obvious we needed some greater intelligence gathering capability here at home."

On the other hand, she said, "Civil libertarians argue that the war on terror is being used and exploited by the government in a way to rob Americans of some very precious liberties."

The debate on civil liberties is all the more significant because of the open-ended nature of the war on terrorism, asserted the journalist.

"It's a war without a knowable end," Warner said, suggesting that the balance struck between security measures and civil liberties may well be in place for decades.

While Bush has followed historical precedents and used his executive powers to bring about new limits on civil liberties during war, he has not, as some wartime presidents have, tried to surpress dissent through legal action, Warner said, nor has he made statements that would prompt anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States.

"He neither joined in nor acquiesced in attacks, verbal or otherwise, on foreign-born Americans in our midst. He did not demonize Muslims," she said.

As the debate on civil liberties continues, Warner said, it will be affected by Americans' concern that technology is eroding their privacy, by court decisions over the years that have made them believe they have a greater right to privacy than is afforded by the U.S. Constitution and by their realization that the war on terrorism will be ongoing.

While the courts will have a role in defining the extent to which civil liberties are affected by the war on terrorism by ruling on several cases prompted by Bush administration actions, Congress will also play a large role, including its action on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, Warner told the audience. Understanding the particulars of the debate on civil liberties and taking part in it are the responsibility of every citizen, she said, noting that a number of elected officials have urged citizen involvement by stating, "democracy is not a spectator sport."


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