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John Ashcroft and Civil Liberties By: Allison Weisberg
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 03, 2003

Ever since the terror attacks of September 11th, the Left has continuously criticized John Ashcroft for the way in which he is waging the war on terrorism. In particular, the Left accuses John Ashcroft of whittling away at the civil liberties of Americans. A closer look at the facts reveals this is not true.

A major concern of the Left is the USA PATRIOT Act, which is an acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism." The legislation was passed by Congress in late October 2001 and signed by the President on October 26, 2001. The USA PATRIOT Act is a comprehensive document that grants the government increased power in such areas as electronic surveillance. It also enables the various intelligence agencies greater information sharing abilities.

Critics of the Act point to particular sections, like Section 358, which gives government investigators the ability to search consumer records without needing a court order. Another section, Section 412, allows for the extended detention of non-citizens suspected of having connections to terrorism. These critics, mostly liberals, claim that this Act gives the government much more power than is needed to fight the war on terrorism. This, they claim, has already led to an infringement upon the civil liberties of all Americans.

In addition to speaking out against John Ashcroft and his policies, some liberal groups took action. One such group is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In response to the USA PATRIOT ACT, the ACLU launched the "Safe and Free" campaign. Claiming that the Government’s ability to "snoop" on Americans has spun out of control, the main goal of the campaign is to give communities the power necessary to stand up the policies of John Ashcroft. According to Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office:

"Local governments have the power to tell their law enforcement officers not to spy without evidence of crime. With the help of ACLU members and activists around the country, we will encourage them to say no as strongly as possible."

The ACLU website provides the necessary information for any community wishing to stand up to what is views as oppressive and invasive policies. It appears this campaign is having an effect on some communities. Since the beginning of this campaign, 15 councils in cities and towns around the U.S. have passed resolutions expressing opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act. Similar resolutions in 40 other cities in towns and cities are awaiting approval.

Most of the resolutions being passed look similar to this February 2002 resolution of the "Bill of Rights Defense Committee" in Northhampton, Massachusetts:

"The U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Massachusetts State Police [are to] report to the Northhampton Human Rights Commission regularly and publicly the extent to and manner is which they have acted under the USA PATRIOT Act, new Executive Orders, or COINTELPRO-type regulations."

Another major concern of the Left is John Ashcroft’s treatment of non-citizens and U.S. citizens suspected of terrorist ties. In the months following September 11th, John Ashcroft approved the detainment of 1,100 non-citizens. Although most of them were questioned and released, a large number were detained for months and denied access to legal counsel or the chance to be heard in court. If a detainee was granted legal counsel, some attorney-client meetings were bugged by federal investigators. The situation was not much better for the small number of U.S. citizens detained. John Ashcroft deemed them "enemy combatants" and held those detainees indefinitely as well. This, claims the Left, is a horrific violation of due process and a number of other rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. "We have violated core constitutional principles," claims David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center.

The Left also asserts that John Ashcroft and the Administration have been secretive about the detentions and other aspects of the war on terrorism. Many groups are angered by the fact that John Ashcroft has refused on a number of occasions to release the names of the detainees and exactly why they are still in custody. In October of 2002, the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and a number of local groups filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act against John Ashcroft in an attempt to get him to release information regarding implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act.

The simple truth is that the Left is exerting needless energy, for their efforts will prove futile. An examination of history and the context in which these events are occurring reveal that the Left is wrong. It seems that many people have forgotten that the United States is at war. This could be due to the fact that it is not a war in the traditional sense; no declarations have been signed, one can’t turn on the television and watch as grand battles are waged. But it is a war. And during times of war, the laws are different.

As a result, John Ashcroft is not violating any constitutional laws. Although the USA PATRIOT Act may contain provisions that appear to violate some civil rights, a closer examination of the language reveals that these actions are being taken to prevent future terrorism in the United States. The government will not abuse this power and target innocent people without reason. It doesn’t have the time or resources to do this.

Regarding the detention of non-citizens, the U.S. Constitution allows the President to suspend the writ of habeas corpus during times of war. The writ of habeas corpus gives a prisoner the right to appear in court. During the Civil War and World Wars I and II, the government suspended the writ and detained people it viewed as threats to national security. According to Cass Sunstein, professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, "By the standards of current law, some of the things Bush has done are aggressive, but they are not out of line – and they’re pretty cautious by historical standards."

The Left is also concerned about the level of secrecy that exists in the administration. A closer look at the way in which this war began reveals why it is necessary. On September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by terrorists that made a total mockery of the American system.

They found the loopholes (student visas) that allowed them to enter this country without raising suspicion. Once here, they attended American flight schools, which gave them the knowledge necessary to make a mockery of the airline security system which was in place at that time. They studied that system and found those loopholes (box cutters were not deemed weapons at that time), which in turn gave them the ability to turn airliners into weapons. And they flew those airliners-turned-weapons into a symbol of American wealth and dominance. But how did they know the World Trade Center was so important? Because they assimilated into a society that, before September 11th, assumed that all peoples came to America in search of nothing more than the American dream. If John Ashcroft were to reveal the tactics the American government was using to deal with the detainees, the remaining al-Qaeda members would make a mockery of that as well.

Despite the assertions of the Left, this battle really is not about civil liberties after all. It is about protecting America from future terrorist attacks. John Ashcroft was given the responsibility of formulating and enforcing a plan that would keep this country safe. In the sixteen months since September 11th, there has not been one successfully executed, al-Qaeda-sponsored attack within the United States. Well done, Mr. Attorney General.

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