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Ashcroft's disappointing performance

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It's hard to determine what moment in last Thursday afternoon exhibition of "performance art" by Attorney General John Ashcroft in front of the "kindler, gentler" Senate Judiciary Committee was the most disappointing: his refusal to acknowledge that some of his draconian measures go too far in the hunt for terrorists and endanger civil liberties; his refusal to admit that he had caved into the NRA lobby when he wouldn't allow the FBI to check the gun records of some those detained for questioning; or cliche efforts to insinuate that anyone who dared to question this administration's motives was "comforting the enemy." (The Justice Department later said the Attorney General only meant to clear up misunderstandings with these harsh statements, not really attack critics, but that's a little too much to swallow considering Ashcroft's demeanor.)

And be assured, it was performance art, designed not to answer the tough questions, but to do an "Oliver North" of a sort, by wrapping himself tightly in the American flag. He dismissed valid objections to his policies by civil libertarians on both the left and the right as the whining by a group that doesn't understand that what he is doing is in the best interests of the country -- even if it isn't in the best interests of the country.

And the Senate Judiciary Committee, ever mindful of the Washington mantra that looking for hard truths is a questionable career move when the poll numbers are against you, raised barely a peep of protest.

Ashcroft's performance seems to be part of an administration-wide effort to deny negative news of any kind. Last week, when American B-52 bombers killed scores of innocent villagers by accident, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld initially refused to acknowledge the incident, and said the whole thing was probably a fabrication of Al Qaeda, calling them world-class liars. Only one problem: Every major media outlet in the world had photos or video footage of the devastation wrought by these American "smart" bombs.

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