More Power to Abuse
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PCR 11-30-01 CS unintended

Do you remember the Clinton administration's high profile monopoly case against Microsoft? It appears that the terms of settlement could include the use of hundreds of millions of Microsoft settlement dollars to promote and subsidize Microsoft products in 14,000 public schools. Microsoft's punishment for being a monopoly would thus be to expand its presence in one of the few markets where Microsoft is not dominant.

Such bizarre consequences of government policy are not unusual, a fact that needs to be kept in mind as we make trade-offs between civil liberties and apprehending terrorists. Indeed, if "terrorist" becomes as expansively defined as "racketeering" and summary punishment as widely applied as asset forfeiture, we will do ourselves more harm than the terrorists.

In the 1970s the federal government passed legislation and provided money for a new agency, Child Protective Services, to protect children from sex abuse. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but child sex abuse was less prevalent than "experts" claimed. Many a local CPS agency had nothing to do. The word went out: find some cases to justify your budget.

It wasn't long before parents were being arrested for spanking misbehaving children. Childhood scrapes and bruises became evidence of parental abuse. Politically ambitious prosecutors fabricated high profile cases against child care centers.
In Wenatchee, Washington, Child Protective Services conspired with police in a witch hunt that charged 43 adults with 30,000 counts of sex abuse against 60 children. Innocent people were coerced into pleas and sentenced to prison. Their children were put out for adoption. Citizens who spoke out against the Wenatchee witch hunt were themselves arrested.

Eventually, the false charges were exposed, thanks to columnists and investigative reporters. Today everyone convicted has been released. Wenatchee parents are attempting to regain children, who were integrated into other families with CPS collecting a bounty from taxpayers for every child put out to adoption.

The Wenatchee case, like the Amirault case in Massachusetts and so many others, demonstrates the heartlessness of public officials. The Wenatachee and Amirault cases were not mistakes. They were intentional. Government officials abused their powers in order to advance their careers, no matter what the cost to innocent people and the rule of law.

It is double folly to trust public officials when normal constitutional protections are set aside in order to better apprehend targeted devils, such as child abusers and drug pushers.

The asset forfeiture laws of the 1980s were targeted at drug lords, but by permitting assets to be seized without convicting or even charging the owners, asset forfeiture quickly became a way for police to augment their budgets. In 80 percent of all asset confiscations, no charges are filed against owners. The police can confiscate property by claiming they have "probable cause" to believe the asset facilitated a crime.

The racketeering laws of the 1970s were aimed at the Mafia, but soon found their way into divorce cases and Justice Department assaults on the attorney-client privilege.

The U.S. Department of Justice has been a leader in expansive interpretation of limited statutory language. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Justice Department attorneys criminalized the accident, charging the oil company with felony counts of "dumping refuse without a permit" and "killing migratory birds without a license."

The Justice Department's expansive interpretations have given the law enforcement agency such a bad name that it is not surprising that civil libertarians do not trust the DOJ with new anti-terrorism powers.

An outpouring of pent-up patriotism and the heroism of New York police and firemen who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center have made the public more trustful of police and government. But if Bill Gates can't be trusted not to abuse Microsoft's market power, how can we trust police and prosecutors not to abuse powers that tread on constitutional protections?

Microsoft can be held accountable with an anti-trust suit, but there is no way to hold to account a misbehaving Justice Department. The same people who brought us Ruby Ridge and Waco now have more sweeping powers to abuse.

It is true that we must do something about the terrorists that a careless immigration policy has brought to our shores, but unless we are very careful the United States will suffer the consequences of the war on terrorism long after the last terrorist is dead.

Paul Craig Roberts is the author (with Lawrence M. Stratton) of The New Color Line : How Quotas and Privilege Destroy Democracy


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