Q&A: Bernie Sanders

In a pair of major votes, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to scale back the Patriot Act and to repeal the new media ownership regulations passed by the Federal Communications Commission.

On Tuesday night the House voted 309 to 118 to block the Justice Department from using any funds to secretly search homes. Over the past two years the Justice Department has overseen 47 of these so-called sneek and peek searches.

It marks the first time the House or Senate has voted to make changes to the controversial USA Patriot Act which was approved with little debate one month after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Then today the House voted 400 to 21 on a spending bill that blocks the FCC from approving deals that would allow networks to own stations reaching more than 35 percent of the national audience.

Today, Democracy Now! talked to Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders about the Patriot Act and the FCC debates as a well recent letter he co-wrote to Vice President Dick Cheney regarding the Iraq Intelligence scandal


Amy Goodman: In another major setback for the Justice Department, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 309-118 to overturn key provisions of the Act.

It marks the first time the House or Senate has rolled back portions of the controversial Act which was approved with little debate one month after the September 11 attacks. Last night's vote attached a provision to a $38 billion appropriations Bill that would block the Justice Department from using any funds to secretly search homes. Over the last two years the Justice Department had overseen 47 of the so-called sneak and peek searches. The House is also expected to vote this week to roll back another provision of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that allows the F.B.I. to secretly obtain detailed information on patrons, from libraries and bookstores. Vermont congress member Bernie Sanders is one of the chief sponsors of that legislation. He now joins us on the phone. Welcome to Democracy Now! Congressman Sanders.

Bernie Sanders: Thank you.

Amy Goodman: Let's start off with what happened last night? The significance of that roll back.

Bernie Sanders: It was a big deal. And it was a very big surprise. The fact that almost all Democrats voted for the provision, and over half the Republicans did, showed the Justice Department for the very first time since the U.S.A. Patriot Act was passed, that there is massive discontent with the anti-civil liberties provisions in that bill. I think it was a great victory. Unfortunately yesterday, because the deal was made between the Republicans and the Democrats on the floor of the house, a number of us were not able to offer amendments. The amendment I would have offered would have stopped the F.B.I. from going into libraries and bookstores with virtually no probable cause, to determine the reading habits of Americans. We're going to fight hard to get that provision put into place. If we can't do it in the house, we'll do it in the Senate. But yesterday's vote -- by the way, I should tell you that the person who introduced that amendment was a conservative Republican -- conservative Republican. So I am feeling much more optimistic today than I did yesterday that the U.S. Patriot Act is going to get a very, very hard look and hopefully we'll be able to take out some of the onerous provisions in it.

Amy Goodman: Now talk about the aspect of the legislation that you're taking on -- the one that puts librarians in the cross hairs of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

Bernie Sanders: That's quite right. Essentially, and I think many Americans don't know this: that under the U.S.A. Patriot Act, the F.B.I. can walk into a secret tribunal -- secret judge, and basically say to the judge, we are doing an investigation on international terrorism. That's all they have to say. And, of course, they are. Having said that to judge, the judge is obliged to give them permission to walk into a library, walk into a bookstore, and find out the books you have taken out, or the books you have purchased. On top of that, the librarian or the bookstore owner may not tell you that you are under investigation. And this is clearly an outrage for a dozen different reasons, but many librarians all over this country are worrying about the chilling impact it has on people's reading habits. Is someone taking out a biography of Osama Bin Laden? Are you going to read a book on anarchy? Are you going to read books that might be controversial if you think the F.B.I. is going to know what is you are reading and that information will get out? So what I'm happy to say is we have the support of the American Librarians Association who have been very, very active on this issue. The book sellers all over America have come out and said, hey, the people of this country have the right to read what they want to read. If the F.B.I. has reason to believe somebody is a terrorist involved in terrorist activities, there are proper law enforcement mechanisms by which we can investigate those people. The good news is that I think yesterday's victory, as you indicated, this is the first time that an aspect of the U.S.A. Patriot Act has come to the floor of the House and it was soundly, soundly defeated. And I think the extent of the victory surprised a lot of people.

Amy Goodman: What does this mean for Bush since all of this has taken place in the context of the presidential campaign?-

Bernie Sanders: This is -- remember, this particular amendment was brought by a fellow named Butch Otter of Idaho. What it should tell the Bush administration and Mr. Ashcroft, is that people all over this country, including a conservative United States congress say, you have gone much too far. Yes, we want to protect the American people from terrorism. That, in fact, is very important. But we can do that without undermining the basic constitutional rights of this country. So I feel better today than I did yesterday. We're going to work as hard as we can. Either through the Senate, or one way or another, through the Conference Committee to get the freedom to read legislation incorporated in there as well.

Amy Goodman: Congress member Sanders, I also want to talk about the F.C.C. and the new media ownership regulations. The New York Times reports today there's growing bipartisan support in congress to roll back Michael Powell's new rules that are expected to result in the greatest media consolidation in U.S. history. Yesterday the Bush administration threatened to veto any bill that would seek to overturn the recent changes by the F.C.C. to the nation's media ownership laws. Then a magazine reported that Michael Powell was thinking about stepping down, though he has denied this. What is happening in congress around this?

Bernie Sanders: Well yesterday in the last -- let me back it up and tell the listeners that right now, clearly one of the major concerns that many of us have who are worried about democracy in America, the diversity of opinion that a democratic society requires -- the main concern is that we're seeing every year is fewer and fewer large multinational media conglomerates owning what we see, hear and read. It is a hugely significant problem. As a result of the decision by the F.C.C. on June 2, a green light was given out to these companies to override, to go beyond many rules that have been set in place for years, to actually increase in a significant way, media concentration in America. Fewer companies would own more and more of the media. What I did is introduce legislation which would rescind what they did on June 2 -- bring us back to where we were. Maurice Hinchey of New York State is working on legislation which would take us a lot further in determining how we can create a more diverse and democratic media. That was the one-two strategy. In the midst of all of that, within the Appropriations Committee, legislation was passed on the House Appropriations Committee, which would deal with one part of the problem, and that is giving a major television network the ability to go from 35% to 45% in terms of the viewing audience, what that television station could own in terms of local affiliates. That was passed in committee. It was also passed yesterday on the floor of the house. Of course it was contained in the overall bill. More importantly, though, on what some of us see as a more serious problem, is the issue of cross ownership. That's the capability of a large company to own -- and this is what Michael Powell has allowed to happen -- to own within a small city, if you like, the local television station, the local radio station, the local newspaper. That does not sound like freedom and democracy to many of us. Maurice Hinchey brought that bill on the floor of the House. Unfortunately, and in my view a very stupid tactic, the Democrats who are managing that bill opposed -- although presumably agreeing with Hinchey on this cross ownership stuff -- opposed him. We ended up with 174 votes, we should have done a lot better than that. And in fact, it seems to me we are quite close -- quite close in the House, at least, to having the votes to completely override what Powell did.

Amy Goodman: Finally, Congress member Sanders, you have signed a letter asking Vice President Cheney 10 questions. You sit on the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations. You're joined in that letter signing by Dennis Kucinich, who is the ranking minority member and congresswoman Carolyn Maloney of New York. Can you tell us what these questions are?

Bernie Sanders: Well very briefly, I think a lot of Americans are deeply concerned about the Bush administration statements that got us into the war and the whole question of whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, whether or not they were obtaining uranium from Africa, so forth and so on. And in the midst of that, while most of the attention has been focused on the President or the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense, the truth of the matter is that Vice President Cheney as many people believe is also active in this process. There is strong evidence to suggest that he has been putting a lot of undue pressure on the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies and from what we can gather -- and this is what the questions were about -- basically not just simply trying to find out what they knew, but putting pressure on them to move them in a direction that they, themselves, did not feel comfortable about. So the bottom line is -- of the questioning is -- what role did Cheney play in trying to influence the intelligence agencies to provide inaccurate information to the President and to the American people.

Amy Goodman: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Congress member Bernie Sanders of Vermont and an independent congressman. By the way, the 10 questions for Cheney. the letters that Congressman Sanders and others have signed can be found at tompaine.com.

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