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Democrats Cave in to Ashcroft -- Again

Democrats talk tough about the way 9/11 detainees have been treated. But are they willing to take Ashcroft to task for the abuses?
 
 
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When Attorney General John Ashcroft recently appeared before the House Judiciary Committee demanding still more power to fight terrorism, a few Democrats on the panel sounded as if they were willing to oppose him. They blustered that the Justice Department may be riding roughshod over civil liberties protections in the way it has treated some September 11 detainees. The tough talk sounded good, but this time around are the Democrats going to do more than talk? They certainly have plenty of reason to tell Ashcroft to take a hike. The recent Justice Department Inspector General's report confirmed what many, and that includes many Democrats, must by now know.

There have been monumental abuses of the rights of the detainees. Thousands of immigrants have been swept up in draconian dragnets, and many have been denied access to counsel and family. Some have been held for months without any charges being brought against them. Several hundred have been deported. The net result of Ashcroft's power flex is the filing of a single terrorism related charge. That case against the alleged culprit, Zacarias Moussaoui, some legal experts say, is mostly circumstantial.

The trampling on individual rights of the detainees has been so outrageous that even Ashcroft has publicly acknowledged that there have been complaints. He pledged to investigate, and the Democrats took his word that he would. But in every case that he has investigated to date, he quickly exonerated his department of any wrongdoing. House Democrats have taken no action to force Ashcroft to insure that the rights of detainees are fully protected.

Then there are Ashcroft's endless imminent terrorism code alerts. The alleged targets have been everything from movie studios, farms, shopping centers, chemical plants, apartment buildings and bridges. There have been no attacks on any of these supposed targets. The alerts are based on tips from what even intelligence agencies have admitted is more often than not "unreliable informants." These tips have been corroborated by equally unreliable random pieces of electronic intercepts, foreign intelligence sources, rumors, and flat-out guesses by government operatives. As usual, the informants aren't named, the alleged attackers aren't positively identified, no specific intelligence report or documents are cited, and no date or time of the attacks is ever given. House Democrats have not called Ashcroft on the carpet and demanded that he make a better effort to confirm that the sources that warn of the alleged attacks are legitimate before issuing a code alert.

The USA Patriot Act gives Ashcroft full authority to freeze or seize assets of any group or individual that the Justice Department says bankrolls terrorists, and to wiretap and computer eavesdrop on any individual or group that the FBI and Justice Department fingers as a possible promoter of terrorism. But this isn't enough for him. In February, the Center for Public Integrity leaked a report that claimed that Justice Department officials proposed radically revising the 2001 anti-terrorism Patriot Act to give even more spy power to the FBI and local law enforcement agencies, permit secret arrests, eliminate some aspects of judicial oversight, establish a DNA data base on anyone suspected of engaging in terrorism, and snatch citizenship from anyone who belongs to or supports a "disfavored political group." The Justice Department and the FBI would have the say-so over who and what those groups are.

When the report made news, Justice Department officials denied that they were seeking more sweeping power to fight terrorism. Democrats could and should then have publicly vowed to hold them to their denial. They didn't. Now Ashcroft is back before Congress with his new pitch for more power.

If, or more likely when, the Democrats cave in and give it to him, they are probably taking a cue from Clinton. In a speech to the right-centrist Democratic Leadership Council in May, Clinton sternly warned the Democrats to seize the national security and defense issues from the Republicans if they want to beat Bush in 2004.

Clinton can speak from experience. Following the terror bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, his counter-terrorist proposals abusively expanded FBI authority and power, eroded some civil liberties protections, and gave the FBI and Justice Department permanent legal license to witch hunt immigrants and Arab-Americans. Bush and the Republicans took careful note, and after 911 added more pages to Clinton's playbook. The result was the Patriot Act and now the possibility of an even more politically destructive clone of it. But no matter how much the eventual Democratic presidential contender screams about defense and domestic security, no Democrat can look and sound tougher on terrorism than Bush.

Bush and Ashcroft have shown that they can pluck the emotional string of Americans on the terrorist threat, and parlay it into colossal popularity ratings in the polls. Ashcroft's latest grab for added power to fight terrorists could help keep those numbers high. The Democrats will have to do much more than talk to see that that doesn't happen.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com. He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).