Drug czar-designate William J. Bennett, saying that “this war is not for delicate sensibilities,” told a Senate committee today that he would consider widening the military’s powers to arrest civilians in certain cases to strengthen the nation’s anti-drug effort.
Such an expansion of powers would come as an exception to the provisions of federal law barring the military from undertaking law enforcement duties.
But Bennett said he would not want to rule out such action, saying the “immediate threat” drugs pose to the nation “is as great as anything else right now.”
Under critical questioning, Bennett assured the Senate Judiciary Committee that he would defend the civil liberties of American citizens and declared that constitutional protections should not be qualified “unless there is a compelling reason to do so.”
But he indicated that such qualifications might be justified.
“The Constitution is not a suicide pact . . . " he said. “Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus, right, and I don’t think that was a terrible thing to do.”
With Bennett’s confirmation by the Senate apparently assured, the senators used the opportunity to vent skepticism about what some contend is a lack of attention to constitutional rights.
An “underlying concern,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), is “whether or not you are an ideologue who will reach the conclusion that the ends justify the means as it relates to constitutional protections.”
Bennett said, “I can’t imagine circumstances in the near future . . . that would require us” to suspend civil liberties in the cause of fighting drugs.
“They are the base. They are the cement. They are the anchor. They sometimes cause us difficulties in this war . . . but these are the ends. . . . You can’t destroy the fabric of the country in order to defend the country,” Bennett said.
He said he opposed “some who were arguing for universal (drug) testing of students.”
When Biden asked his reason for that resistance, Bennett replied, “Because I’m sensitive to the Constitution, the Fourth Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.
The hearing concluded today after representatives of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Assn. for Supervision and Curriculum Development offered testimony critical of Bennett’s nomination.
Biden scheduled a committee vote for next Thursday.
Among the committee members, only Sens. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Paul Simon (D-Ill.) indicated they might vote against Bennett.
The senators praised Bennett’s assertions that he would handle the job aggressively, tackling all the nitty-gritty details of coordinating the anti-drug efforts, ending turf battles between agencies and focusing on treatment and prevention as well as law enforcement.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)drew Bennett out on whether he would support a ban on semiautomatic combat-style weapons used by drug traffickers.
“I will admit a personal reservation about private ownership of AK-47s,” Bennett said. “I’m not a gun owner. . . . The President knows I have my concerns.”