February 22, 2003

THE A TEAM:

That Devil Ashcroft (David Tell, for the Editors, 03/03/2003, Weekly Standard)
A FEW WEEKS BACK, a Washington-based "investigative research" outfit called the Center for Public Integrity announced that it had recently "obtained" a large and significant set of confidential legal papers from someone inside the Justice Department--a someone whose name the Center for Public Integrity did not make public, his integrity being of a sort that bar association ethics panels and the department's own Office of Professional Responsibility tend not to recognize.

Never mind that, though. For CPI executive director Charles Lewis, the leak was a stroke of purest good fortune. He runs a scrupulously nonpartisan shop, you understand, and his donor list represents the full spectrum of American viewpoints, from the Gaia Fund to the Streisand Foundation and everything in between, and he cares only for the public interest, let the chips fall where they may. Okay, sure: If by chance, when fall they do, those chips should happen to embarrass a Republican, like that awful John Ashcroft fellow, well, then the good folks at CPI probably aren't going to start weeping in their beer, exactly. But never mind that, either. What matters is that an anonymous, self-styled whistle-blower gave Charles Lewis a copy of the latest "secret" Big Brother plan being hatched by awful John Ashcroft's awful staff henchmen, and that Lewis then made out like Paul Revere, rushing to warn each Middlesex village and farm--and all the Justice Department beat reporters, too--of an imminent and positively "breathtaking" threat to the Republic and its freedoms.

Also, Lewis made a photographic facsimile of the document in question--apparently an advanced but less-than-final draft of omnibus anti-terrorism legislation provisionally entitled the "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003"--and posted it on CPI's Internet home page. Where it remains to this day, and where anybody interested might long ago have tracked it down and read the thing.

Which otherwise humble and obvious piece of information turns out to be the entire episode's explanatory linchpin, and much the most depressing aspect of all the overheated commentary it's occasioned. Because, as anybody who does take the trouble to track down and read the "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003" very quickly begins to suspect, the overheated commentary it's occasioned is ill-informed--so freakishly ill-informed, in fact, as to constitute something close to an outright hoax, the punditry equivalent of one of those "I am treasurer of the Nigerian exile government" e-mail money scams. You wouldn't think it possible, but in this case, unfortunately, it cannot be dismissed out of hand: The pundits involved, Charles "Public Integrity" Lewis included, may barely have glanced at, much less earnestly studied, the very same Justice Department proposal they claim to find scandalous. [...]

No one need feel sorry for John Ashcroft personally; he doesn't seem to mind his critics all that much. Neither should anyone suppose that the mere existence of their criticism poses a consequential public policy problem in and of itself. Quite the contrary: Even in times of relative calm, how the attorney general of the United States balances considerations of public safety and individual rights in his administration of federal law is a subject of enormous importance. And any related proposal he advances should therefore warrant scrupulous public attention. The "Domestic Security Enhancement Act," should it ever formally debut, will be such a proposal. It ought to get some serious criticism.

But that's not what's happening. The criticism isn't serious; it is uniformly self-indulgent, heedless of detail, and hysterical. And especially in an age of terrorism, an insistence on the right kind of public debate should count as more than merely an aspirational nicety of goo-goo political science. Yes, civil liberties are at stake. But people's lives are, too. Executive-branch initiatives intended to help save those lives do not become "instruments of repression used by totalitarian states" (as the San Francisco Chronicle has lately suggested)--and ought not be set aside on that basis--purely by dint of the fact that they originate at staff levels of a Justice Department led by a Republican named Ashcroft. Nobody's civil liberties are advanced by lying about the government this way.


It was Richard Nixon who said that every Cabinet should have one potential future president in it. His was John Connally, who later spent $13 million to secure one delegate to the Republican convention, suggesting that here, as in so many other areas, Mr. Nixon's judgment was a tad sketchy. However, the basic point, that a president should be grooming a future party leader and must have the confidence to create alternate power centers even within his own government, remains valid.

The Clinton administration was conspicuous for the absence of such figures, at least until Bill Richardson came on board. (Bruce Babbitt was the closest thing in the initial cabinet, but was soon mired in scandal.) George W. Bush, on the other hand, in an early indication of the serene self-confidence that his critics still can't grasp, chose a cabinet that has a minimum of four people who'd be credible presidents--Colin Powell, Don Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, John Ashcroft--and, significantly, they were put in charge of America's foreign and domestic security apparati. To the nation's great good fortune, this meant that when 9-11 struck there were competent and forceful figures running the agencies that mattered. Don Rumsfeld soon emerged as the star, but no one has had a better couple years than Mr. Ashcroft.

With every step he's taken, civil libertarians and fellow travelers (most of whom really just oppose the war and would gladly round up Muslims if only we'd return to isolationism) have accused him of wanting to shred the Constitution and impose some kind of dictatorship. But in courtroom after courtroom and judicial opinion after opinion he's been vindicated. We may well look back in ten or twenty years and tut-tut about this measure or that measure, but the Justice Department has proceeded in a reasonable manner throughout and, unlike his predecessors during WWI, WWII, and Vietnam, it appears Mr. Ashcroft will have nothing to be ashamed of and much to be proud of.

MORE:
Officials Say Case Against Florida Professor Had Been Hindered: Law enforcement officials long suspected Sami Al-Arian of posing a national security risk, but were slow to act because of legal, political and operational roadblocks. (ERIC LICHTBLAU and JUDITH MILLER, 2/21/03, NY Times)

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2003 7:12 AM
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