But Attorney General John Ashcroft’s responses to last year’s atrocities also threaten us, as did Palmer’s in an earlier generation, in three profoundly disturbing ways:
They focus suspicion on groups or individuals, based on religion or national origin alone;
They demand virtually unchecked authority to snoop and spy on law-abiding Americans not suspected of any crime; and
They shut down dissent and due process with strategies ranging from secret hearings and detentions to open disregard of the courts.
In the year since the Sept. 11 attacks, the ACLU has led the resistance against new policies and practices that strike at the heart of what this democracy is all about. The ACLU has fought measures that roll back fundamental protections and jeopardize basic freedoms — employing lawsuits, testimony in Congress, and direct appeals to citizens who may not realize that their way of life is endangered.
Most Americans do not recognize that the USA PATRIOT Act, conceived by Ashcroft and rammed through Congress under pressure from President Bush, gave the government expanded power to invade their privacy, imprison people without due process, and punish dissent. Ostensibly needed for the war on terrorism, it actually put in place domestic changes so sweeping that even religious conservatives, who had pushed hard for Ashcroft’s appointment as
attorney general, decided he had gone too far. For example, it allows delayed notice of law-enforcement agency searches; under this “sneak and peek” provision, agents can enter a house, apartment or office with a search warrant when the occupant is away, make photographs and take physical property including communications equipment, and not inform the owner or occupant until later. Ashcroft also aggressively targeted immigrants, stepped up domestic spying, and proposed using volunteer snoops in his campaign against terrorism.
Unable to countenance such intrusions on innocent groups and individuals, conservatives — including Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, Ken Connor, who heads the Family Research Council, and Paul Weyrich, who heads the Free Congress Foundation — took their concerns public. “If there hadn’t been this big government problem,” Norquist said, “Ashcroft would have been talked about as the Bush successor. Instead, the talk is ‘too bad we pushed for him.’ “
The secrecy surrounding the detentions of more than 1,200 people since Sept. 11 is particularly alarming. The ACLU sued for release of the detainees’ identities, eliciting some information, but the government has adamantly refused to disclose their names or where they were incarcerated. Some were held for many weeks without charges, and none were charged with terrorism. Virtually all were Arab, South Asian or Muslim, and all but a few hundred are now believed to have been deported on immigration charges or allowed to leave voluntarily.