Bush Makes Justice Papers Secret
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Washington Post Editorial | The Ashcroft Smear
Friday, December 7, 2001; Page A40
"We need honest, reasoned debate, and not fear-mongering. To those . . . who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil."
THUS DOES the attorney general, John Ashcroft, characterize critics of his tactics in investigating terrorism and of the new authorities he has sought. Mr. Ashcroft's remarks were not off the cuff; he delivered them as part of his opening statement yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They explain perfectly why many people have concerns about his leadership in this uncertain time. It is the attorney general's function, or should be, to ensure that a lively debate over policy is protected -- even during wartime. Mr. Ashcroft instead challenges the patriotism of those who dissent.
His attack appears aimed chiefly at the press and at those civil libertarians who have challenged the administration's proposals. But it is the press's job to raise questions. It is the job of civil libertarians to speak up on behalf of those pesky procedural niceties at a time when their defense is not the highest value on other people's minds -- especially at such a time. These issues need to be discussed -- and seriously -- before policy is changed, because these policy changes, whether warranted or not, will affect many lives. They place significant new powers in government hands. It is not disloyal -- in fact, it is a form of patriotism -- to ask whether government is getting the powers most appropriate to the task, whether it is using them wisely, whether it may be missing important potential strategies, or even whether it is going off half-cocked against the wrong people.
It is worth noting the diversity of voices that have raised such concerns. Long-serving former law enforcement and intelligence officials have spoken up publicly, worrying that some policy changes may not help, and some may even hurt, the domestic war against terrorism. William Webster, former judge and former head of both the CIA and the FBI, has expressed concern about the Justice Department's shift in emphasis in counterterrorism toward a strategy of disruption. Former Justice Department officials Walter Dellinger and Christopher Schroeder, in an op-ed column in The Post yesterday, suggested changes to the president's order authorizing military commissions. Are they too giving ammunition to the enemy? Just to pose the question illuminates the recklessness of the language.
Have some of Mr. Ashcroft's critics exaggerated the danger to liberty? Have they -- have we? -- been wrong in some judgments? You'd have to be awfully arrogant, or foolish, or both, to deny the possibility. But if American political history stands for one solitary point it is that democratic debate is good and makes the country stronger. Congressional give and take over the administration's proposed anti-terrorism bill made it better; criticism of President Bush's overbroad order on military tribunals prompted the White House to clarify that it was planning a fairer process -- used in a more limited manner -- than the order itself allows. Mr. Ashcroft may not like the criticism. But his job is to defend dissent, not to use the moral authority of his office to discourage people from participating in one of the most fundamental obligations of citizenship.
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)
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