John Ashcroft is a gentleman. You can tell it just by looking at him. The way he dealt with his defeat by a deceased opponent in the Missouri Senate campaign last year showed his best qualities. He was gracious in defeat, supportive of the will of the voters, and steadfast in his refusal to seek the retribution in the courts that some of his supporters advocated.
But for all the good qualities that Ashcroft showed in defeat, he has shown many of the opposite in his role as Attorney General.
Instead of the gentlemanly, patient politician, Ashcroft has taken on the demeanor of a vexed Old Testament prophet. Instead of the thoughtful statesman, we see a knee-jerk politician determined to sweep aside any obstacle in his path, including important civil liberties, in order to hunt down his prey. Instead of wisdom there is flimsy rhetoric. Instead of fairness and justice, there is ideological arm-twisting.
These changes do not suit him. Nor do they suit the American public -- even if in our need to feel safe, we have put the better angels of our nature aside. The ramifications of the changes to policing powers demanded by Ashcroft, and largely given to him by a Congress that did not even bother to read the USA Patriot Act before approving it, will be felt by the country long after Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network have been hunted down and destroyed. It seems that in an effort to make up for the stunning failure of the intelligence community to stop the events of Sept. 11, Ashcroft, the Justice Department and the FBI, are now willing to chase gnats in the hopes of catching a camel.
While some of the measures make sense -- the right to have roving wiretaps, for instance, that would allow law enforcement to track an individual instead of a single phone -- others are pure excess.
The powers demanded over Internet usage, for instance, border on draconian. For example, the government now has a right to spy on Web browsing -- they could watch Google, for example, to see who is entering certain kinds of search terms. The recent decision to question 5000 men who arrived in the country legally after January 2000, just because they happen to be Arabic, looks like a witch hunt by a Justice Department that doesn't know what to do next. Even more disturbing is the suspension of the right of detainees to have private conversations with their attorneys, if the US Attorney General deems they might pose a threat to the public. That's a lot of power in the hands of one man.
There have been other worrisome acts. Ashcroft advised government departments to "be cautious" about fulfilling requests for information from journalists and others - and then said his department would support any legal challenges to denials. And his advice to President Bush to create secret military tribunals to try, and perhaps execute, terrorists, as New York Times columnist William Safire says, undermines the principles of US justice.
His actions have been perplexing in other areas as well. The surrender of the Justice Department to Microsoft was truly disappointing. Instead of the sweeping changes that a finding of eight counts of anti-trust behavior demanded, the Justice Department practically handed the keys to the future of the Internet -- and thus of much of our future economy -- to Mr. Gates and his company.
Ashcroft's actions on Oregon's assisted suicide law also seem ominous. Oregon voters have not once, but twice approved this law. Even those opposed in Oregon who are opposed to the idea are aghast at the Justice Department's interference in this matter. During his confirmation hearings, Ashcroft said he would act fairly as Attorney General, and not let his Christian fundamentalist religious views affect the way he made decisions about the public interest. The decision to try and stop the Oregon law would seem to question that commitment.
When he spoke to a Congressional committee about the need to pass the USA Patriot Act, Ashcroft quoted former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who said he would arrest Mafia figures for spitting on the street if that would help in the war on crime. But that analogy is misleading. Robert Kennedy knew who the bad guys were, he just had to figure out how to catch them, within constitutional boundaries. Ashcroft's actions are those of a man who doesn't know his enemy and thus is willing to steamroller the constitution in the name of law enforcement.
We all want the good guys to get the bad guys. And we're all willing to bend our basic rights to help that happen. But the Attorney General is asking us to bend over backwards and look the other way. We need more to see more of the wise, patient, statesman-like Ashcroft of last year. Because right now, he is going too far, too fast.