General John Ashcroft has embarked on a bizarre promotional tour to
counter growing public opposition to the Patriot Act. The administration
clearly is worried by recent votes in Congress to limit the scope of
the Act, votes that reflect the willingness of even GOP loyalists to
buck the president on the issue. So Mr. Ashcroft is visiting several
cities to give a stump speech that essentially says this: Trust us
we're the government, and we say the Patriot Act does not threaten
attorney general misses the point. Government assurances are not good
enough in a free society. The overwhelming burden must always be placed
on government to justify any new encroachment on our liberty. Now that
the emotions of September 11th have cooled, the American people are
less willing to blindly accept terrorism as an excuse for expanding
federal surveillance powers.
Mr. Ashcroft is an administrator, not a legislator. It is not his job
to write laws or say what the law should be. His job is to execute the
laws passed by Congress. It is not his place to chide Congress or the
American people for not supporting his viewpoint. He certainly should
not be spending taxpayer money to lobby for his political positions.
complains that the Patriot Act is misunderstood. But it's not the
American public's fault nobody knows exactly what the Patriot Act
does. The Act contains over 500 pages of detailed legalese, the full
text of which was neither read nor made available to Congress before
it was voted on which by itself should have convinced members
to vote against it. Many of the surveillance powers authorized in the
Act are not clearly defined and have not yet been tested. When they
are tested, court challenges are sure to follow. The Act's complexity
is even more troubling when we consider how powers given to the Justice
department today might be abused by future administrations.
clear, however, that the Patriot Act expands the government's ability
to monitor us. The Act eases federal rules for search warrants in some
cases; allows expanded wiretaps and Internet monitoring; allows secret
sneak and peek searches; and even permits federal agents
to examine library and bookstore records. On these grounds alone it
should be soundly rejected.
was not always so cavalier about civil liberties. Consider the following
statement by then-Senator Ashcroft during the Clinton years:
administration would like the federal government to have the capability
to read any international or domestic computer communications. The FBI
wants access to decode, digest, and discuss financial transactions,
personal e-mail, and proprietary information sent abroad all
in the name of national security.
interest in all e-mail is a wholly unhealthy precedent, especially given
this administration's track record on FBI files and IRS snooping. Every
medium by which people communicate can be subject to exploitation by
those with illegal intentions. Nevertheless, this is no reason to hand
Big Brother the keys to unlock our e-mail diaries, open our ATM records,
read our medical records, or translate our international communications...The
implications here are far-reaching, with impacts that touch individual
users, companies, libraries, universities, teachers, and students.
The attorney general's blatant flip-flop can of course be ascribed
to partisan politics. Like many conservatives, Mr. Ashcroft correctly
understood that the Clinton Justice department did not believe in the
rule of law and terribly abused its power. Yet even after the Janet
Reno debacles, he wants us to believe that his Justice department
and future departments can be entrusted with more power.