For a time, it seemed, Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the news every day, ostensibly defending the country from its enemies, real or imagined, at home or abroad. His advisers may have counseled restraint, or more likely the White House staff did, and he was less often embedded in the eye of the daily news storms.
Now he has emerged once more to champion the baleful and misnamed U.S.A. Patriot Act, whose name is a cheap-shot public relations device intended to smear critics as being unpatriotic.
Not so, Mr. Ashcroft asserts. “To abandon this tool would disconnect the dots, risk American lives and liberty, and reject Sept. 11th's lessons,” he said in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “Ninety-one per cent of Americans understand that the Patriot Act has not affected their civil rights or the civil rights of their families.” Even assuming that were true, which one should not, does that suggest that the other 9 per cent are unpatriotic and might fall into the toils of this modern-day sedition act?
Believe it or not, the act's full title is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.” One wonders what pointy-headed bureaucrat went home to his evening cocktail secure in the belief that he had struck a great blow for national security by coming up with that one.
Prosecutions for sedition, or criticism of the government, go back to the Alien and Sedition Acts passed during the administration of John Adams, who as a Revolutionary War politician and diplomat, practiced seditious discourse against the British crown. Sedition statutes have reappeared in American history, usually during times of war, and particularly during the 20th century world wars. German Americans were persecuted long after the Kaiser sued for peace, abdicated, and beat it for Holland.
American Communists or alleged fellow travelers were prosecuted after World War II, but the wind went out of that anti-sedition movement when it became evident that, except for some espionage rings aimed at supplying defense secrets to our erstwhile Soviet allies, few Americans subscribed to the slogan of “Better dead than red.” It was an uncomfortable, even perilous time for many innocent as well as possibly guilty people, but the nation survived.
As people begin to assess how successful the Bush Administration has been in striking back at and rooting out terrorists, criticism has grown of the overreach of the Patriot Act. Many Americans, if they did not support it in so many words, thought drastic action was needed to prevent a recurrence of the attacks on New York and Washington. But of course it has not eliminated the issuance of periodic continuing warnings that there might be other terrorist attacks.
Instead, Mr. Ashcroft and his merry crew have used the act to abridge the liberties of both citizens and non-citizens. Some of the provisions seem absurd on their face. Tightening controls at our borders is one thing; attempting to gain access to library circulation lists is another. If the act were used to its full potential, the government would be literally inundated with data, enabling those who really do mean harm to the United States to escape detection.
Respecting our constitutional guarantees of freedom from governmental intrusion is the first defense line of national security. Any law that might abridge those rights must be subject to careful scrutiny by the courts, by Congress, by the press, and by everyone concerned. Mr. Ashcroft, of course, is entitled to mount any rhetorical defense of the Patriot Act that he chooses, but it is doubtful that he can put enough rouge on this pig to fool all of the people all of the time.