Drug czar-designate William J. Bennett, drawing a parallel with Abraham Lincoln's suspension of the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War, said Thursday that he would favor limiting constitutional liberties if there were "compelling reasons" to do so in the war on drugs.
"The Constitution is not a suicide pact," Bennett declared in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is holding confirmation hearings on his nomination. "Lincoln did suspend habeas corpus rights, and I don't think that was a terrible thing to do."
The right of habeas corpus is the constitutional right of a citizen being held in custody to compel the government to prove in court that it is acting legally.
Military Role Considered
In addition, Bennett indicated that he might consider recommending relaxation of a century-old law restricting the power of the military to arrest civilians and otherwise assume law enforcement responsibilities.
"This war is not for delicate sensibilities," he said. "This is tough stuff."
Bennett indicated that his views are in a formative stage and he does not yet want to rule out any possible ways to increase the government's power to combat illegal drugs.
Together, however, the two steps he discussed would give the federal government unprecedented new powers, and they drew immediate expressions of concern from some senators and civil libertarians.
An "underlying concern," said the 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."
A lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, Alan Adler, said later: "We would hope that Mr. Bennett would not believe that the problem of drugs, as serious as it is, gives him the authority to violate constitutional rights as would be justifiable only in the rare case where our nation really was at war."
In his testimony, Bennett insisted that his comments did not reflect any "insensitivity toward civil liberties."
"They are the base," he said. "They are the cement. They are the anchor. They sometimes cause us difficulty in this war . . . . But you can't destroy the fabric of the country in order to defend the country."
Bennett said he saw "no reason to suspend or qualify constitutional protections unless there is compelling reason to do so."
It was unclear, however, exactly how Bennett would balance his concern for constitutional liberties with pressure for stronger action against drugs. The nominee described his thinking about such matters as tentative, saying that he did not want to "rule out" help from any "ally."
His testimony about constitutional protections indicated that he might favor some legal or legislative efforts to limit existing Fourth Amendment restrictions on search and seizure in order to increase the ability of police to apprehend drug users and traffickers.
And on the question of granting additional powers to the military, a Bennett spokesman said later Thursday that "under certain circumstances" the Administration might want "to look at revising" the provisions of federal law that bar the military from engaging in domestic law enforcement.
However, spokesman David Tell said: "Mr. Bennett is not advocating or contemplating any suspension, in the short-term, of the Posse Comitatus Act"--the Civil War-era law that established the barrier to using troops as police.
In his appearance before the committee, Bennett ascribed a new urgency to the drug war, declaring that the "immediate threat" drugs pose to the nation is "as great as anything else right now."
He strongly defended his previous advocacy of urine testing, unannounced locker searches and the use of trained dogs in public schools plagued by drug problems. Such measures have been challenged on Fourth Amendment grounds.
And, asked whether he could envision that Fourth Amendment protections might in some situations have to be qualified to the degree that they would permit universal search and seizure, Bennett said:
"That's a pretty extreme measure. Might we come to that? It's possible . . . . "
Bennett's declaration that he would "not rule out" changes that would grant the military expanded powers in law enforcement reopens a contentious debate about the proper role of the armed forces in the anti-drug effort.
The military has shown no appetite for increased powers. But Congress last year granted it additional authority in the drug interdiction effort. More recently, in an atmosphere of growing concern about drug-related crime, a number of commentators have suggested that the anti-drug role of the armed forces be extended to the nation's streets.
Through a spokesman, Bennett said Thursday that his comments about an expanded military role referred primarily to the interdiction effort.
Although Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) had indicated previously that they might oppose the Bennett nomination, his controversial comments Thursday did not appear to put the nomination in jeopardy.
A vote on the matter is not scheduled until next week. Few senators attended Thursday's hearing, but most of those who questioned him expressed strong support for the nomination. Biden, the committee chairman, said he could detect no groundswell of opposition to the nomination.
Bennett's tough talk on drugs came in the wake of a State Department report indicating that drug production worldwide increased markedly last year, a development the department blamed in part on "the subordination of our drug control agenda to other pressing concerns."
The government said its anti-drug efforts had been set back by the necessity to focus on civil unrest in Burma, instability in Afghanistan, a rocky political transition in Pakistan and a declining economy in Peru.
In reporting that worldwide cocaine production had increased by 10%, with marijuana up 22%, the State Department said it had been confronted once again "by world events that can and do have a devastating impact on efforts to reduce the global supply of drugs."