Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Ashcroft Dislikes Civil Liberties

Good law enforcement officials know that their success depends heavily on retaining the confidence of their communities. Blunderbuss police methods which ignore citizen rights and single out racial, ethnic and religious minorities for unfair and discriminatory treatment risk losing the public support so critical to law enforcement and public safety in a democratic system. They undermine the basic rule-of-law values that underlie our freedoms and democracy.
It is a lesson that the nation’s chief law enforcement officer–Attorney General John Ashcroft–seems to have missed. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the American public left little doubt that it wanted improved security measures. Instead of seizing on the sentiment to develop a responsible program to upgrade security, the Attorney General is playing recklessly on the public’s fear in an effort to gain support for draconian measures that skirt the Constitution and shred civil liberties.

Not only does the Attorney General’s program do damage to the very citizen rights that the nation has gone to war to protect in the past, but it deceives the public into believing that national security and adherence to our Constitution are incompatible. That is a false and dangerous philosophy that actually weakens our country, damaging the fabric of our democracy for years to come. It is regrettable that a high public official–who has sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution–would lead such an assault.

For many Ashcroft watchers, the Attorney General’s machinations are no great surprise. His record as a Senator provided little hope for an even-handed approach to civil liberties. The close 58 to 42 Senate vote for his confirmation as Attorney General reflects the unease that many felt about giving him the reins at the Justice Department.

Ashcroft Justice has included:

  • The secret detention of more than 1,200 people with the Justice Department providing only vague and shifting explanations for the action. As The New York Times editorialized, the Administration seems to have “no credible reason” to believe the detainees are dangerous beyond a vague concern that among them might be a “future law-breaker.”

  • Questioning by the FBI, under Ashcroft’s authority, of more than 5,000 people, mostly men 18 to 30 of Middle Eastern background on a random open ended fishing expedition. The U. S. Attorney’s office in Detroit is sending out letters in the area, which has a large Arab immigrant community, asking recipients to come in to be interviewed. The letter says “your name was brought to our attention because among other things you came to Michigan on a visa from a country where there are groups that support, advocate or finance international terrorism.” Some local enforcement officials have resisted efforts by the FBI to enlist them in the dragnet. The police chief of Portland, Oregon, for example, refused to participate in the random questioning on the grounds that Oregon law prohibits the interrogation of immigrants legally in this country and not suspected of having committed a crime.

  • Establishment of special military tribunals which would replace civilian courts to try any non-citizen that the President suspects is involved in international terrorism of any type or to be harboring or abetting terrorists. Unlike regular military courts, the special tribunals would be allowed to operate in secret and to withhold evidence from defendants and deny their choice of lawyers. The defendants in a special tribunal could be sentenced to death by a two-thirds vote of the military judges. In contrast, military courts may sentence a defendant to death only on a unanimous vote of the judges.

  • Authorizing eavesdropping of lawyers’ conversations with clients who are suspected terrorists–a clear violation of the attorney-client privilege and a major impediment to the preparation of a proper defense to the charges.

  • Consideration of a plan to relax long-time restrictions on the FBI’s spying on religious and political organizations in the U. S.

  • Abandonment of the long-standing principle that the Constitution and its Bill of Rights applies to all persons in the U. S. including non-citizens. Our Bill or Rights and other constitutional guarantees are not mere conveniences to be discarded in time of crisis. They are carefully considered, fundamental rights that provide a measure of security for each citizen from abuses of government power. They represent the values we hold dear. And they are perfectly compatible with effective law enforcement and protection of national security.

We should not appear to be so weak as to destroy our own values in the fight against anti-American terrorism. People around the world support us because of freedoms and civil liberties that we promote and cherish. We do not help our cause in the court of world opinion if we walk so easily away from our real strengths as a free people. This is especially relevant to the credibility of our government’s criticism of secret trials and human rights violations in foreign countries.

The Attorney General is out of control. Rather than reassuring citizens, Attorney General Ashcroft is scaring people who see him as a reckless official all too anxious to abandon civil liberties and Constitutional protections. John Ashcroft is the wrong man, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. If he does not change his course and support due process and long established legal practices, Ashcroft should step aside and allow the President to select a law enforcement official who believes in upholding therule of law under the Constitution of our country.