With one word, a federal judge has described not only John Ashcroft's handling of the Department of Justice, but also the Bush administration's policy of citing national security as the reason why it's trying to hide the Constitution from Americans. U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar says Ashcroft's super-secret policies and violation of basic Constitutional guidelines sounds "idiotic."
Yaser Esam Hamdi, 21, an American citizen born in Louisiana but captured in Afghanistan, has been confined at the Norfolk (Va.) Naval Station since April 5. The Justice Department claims that since Hamdi is a captured enemy combatant not only isn't he entitled to legal representation but can be held indefinitely since he hasn't been charged with any crime. "That sounds idiotic, doesn't it?" asks Judge Doumar. Ashcroft also believes it's the government's right to record all lawyer-client communication; Judge Doumar, citing the Constitution and more than two centuries of American legal precedent, disagrees.
In a related case, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler will decide if the government has any Constitutional basis to keep secret the names and charges against those it currently detains as terrorists. Ironically, the Justice Department admits that many of those it's hiding from the public are not terrorist suspects. In numerous actions, Ashcroft and Vice-President Dick Cheney have retreated into their bunkers, arguing that the secrecy and the shredding of Constitutional guidelines are necessary for national security. Cheney himself told the Senate leadership in February that Bush officials would probably defy all attempts to question them about what they knew before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. Both Ashcroft and Cheney have labeled dissent, even by leaders of both major political parties, to be unpatriotic, something that should cause even more fear in Americans than anything that happened Sept. 11.
The Bush administration's quest for secrecy is understandable, considering it was primarily staring at headlights prior to Sept. 11. Newsweek and numerous other publications now report that the Bush administration, probably for political reasons, discounted the Clinton administration's severe and substantial warnings about terrorist activities. Ashcroft himself opposed an FBI proposal to add more counter-terrorism agents. Numerous memos by the CIA, backed by data from foreign intelligence agencies, were shuffled into a bureaucratic limbo by the Bush administration. These are the same leaders who agreed that color-coded days was a brilliant concept are now chomping away at our civil rights.
In the first weeks after the attacks, Americans gave the government wide latitude to seek out and destroy those responsible. The people realized they may have to temporarily yield a few of their own civil rights to gain their permanent security, a reality of life but one that would have shocked and saddened the nation's founders who wrote our keystone documents under terrors we can't even imagine.
John Ashcroft saw the confusion after Sept. 11 as political convenience. Within two months, drafted in secret under a cloak of "national security," Ashcroft had bullied Congress to pass the USA Patriot Act. Most of Congress now admit they didn't read the 342-page document which butts against Constitutional protections of the First (free speech), Fourth (unreasonable searches), Fifth (right against self-incrimination), and Sixth (due process) amendments.
President Bush--in Europe telling our allies that the reason to modernize the military is to make it more modern--has cloaked himself in the fiction of national security to justify a political agenda of secrecy. His popularity rating remains over 60 percent, even though his leading political advisor joyfully proclaims that the events of Sept. 11 should help elect more Republicans in the Fall elections.
What the President and his advisors must understand, yet may not be prepared to admit, is that Americans are giving unprecedented support not because they believe the President is a brilliant war leader but because they believe in the country, and hope that solidarity and increased vigilance will be the fortress against continued attacks upon the nation. FBI director Robert Mueller, acknowledging numerous problems in America's intelligence-gathering and analysis, and in announcing a massive reorganization of his agency, says the FBI "has been the agency to protect the rights of others."
As long as John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney, and numerous Bush officials believe the Constitution is nothing more than a scrap of paper to be used to justify a cover-up for their own problems, then anything Mueller says is nothing more than empty rhetoric.
It is important to destroy terrorism. It's just as important we don't destroy the American fabric to do so.
Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D. is a professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. His most recent book is Bill Clinton: The Joy of Sax. Walt has been sidelined with a nasty illness the past few weeks and is just now getting some of his old energy back. He love to hear from you and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org