The Diminishing of John Ashcroft


When I read some of those descriptions [of me in the press] I get scared of me. — Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. News & World Report, January 26, 2004

In January of 2003, I, hardly known as a conservative or Bush admirer, was invited by David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, to appear at its annual Conservative Political Action Conference. It was the first time a Voice writer had been asked to speak at this center of conservative activism.

Joining me at the panel on civil liberties, the Constitution, and the Bush-Ashcroft Patriot Act was Bob Barr, an authentic conservative Republican but also a libertarian. He and I led the attack on the attorney general’s dismantling of parts of the Bill of Rights. Before us was an audience of Bush enthusiasts, but some seemed to be rather receptive to what we were saying.

Preceding the 2004 Conservative Political Action Conference, in Arlington, Virginia, the president, in his January 20 State of the Union speech, emphasized that sections of the Patriot Act were due to expire on December 31, 2005. At that point, pleased to hear the expiration date, some members on both sides of the aisle applauded. Despite that applause, the president went on to urge Congress to be sure to renew those sections of the act.

At the conservatives’ conference, Vice President Dick Cheney echoed Bush, but, as David Kirkpatrick reported in The New York Times (January 25):

“Mr. Cheney drew a less enthusiastic response when he called on Congress to extend the anti-terrorism law… Many conservatives fear that the act and other administration moves give the federal government too much power. In recognition of a new alliance on the issue, the American Civil Liberties Union set up a booth at the conference for the first time this year.”

The presence of the ACLU is considerably more telling than the debut of a Voice writer at the main event of the American Conservative Union last year. Also, significantly, Bob Barr has become a privacy consultant for the ACLU while working for the American Conservative Union.

As the Times reported, before Dick Cheney was at the podium, “Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Judiciary Committee, vowed that extending the [Patriot] act before reviewing its results by 2005 would happen ‘over my dead body.’ ”

It is through the very conservative Sensenbrenner’s committee that all of Ashcroft’s legislative proposals must clear. But its chairman, who deals only with legislation, couldn’t stop Ashcroft’s executive order in May 2002 that greatly loosened FBI surveillance guidelines, allowing agents to covertly attend and monitor public meetings without any prior specific leads indicating that anyone present was engaged in anything that might be related to an investigation of terrorism.

At the time, however, Sensenbrenner said publicly and angrily that he didn’t want this country to go back “to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King.”

The conservative-libertarian opposition to Ashcroft has been building steadily around the country, and in this session of Congress, a number of bills to roll back parts of the Patriot Act without waiting for December 31, 2005, have been introduced by Republican conservatives and co-sponsored by some libertarians on the Democratic side of the aisle. A growing number of members of Congress have been listening to more and more of their constituents across the land who have been telling their representatives to undo some of the damage the attorney general and the president have perpetrated against the Bill of Rights.

Due to the organizing efforts of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union, there are now 250 cities, towns, and counties and three state legislatures (Alaska, Hawaii, Vermont) that have passed resolutions instructing their members to protect the civil liberties of the residents of those places, and many more resolutions are in progress elsewhere. By 36 to 13, the New York City Council passed its resolution on February 4, requesting that Congress report periodically any data on New Yorkers that federal agencies have scooped up under the Patriot Act.

To find out how to organize a resolution in your own town or city, go to rightsanddissent.org/take-action.

In a resounding news article in the January 20 Boston Globe, (“Resistance to Patriot Act Gaining Ground: Foes Organizing in Communities”), Thanassis Cambanis reported:

“More than two centuries ago, the patriots of Brewster [Massachusetts] shut down the Colonial courts on Cape Cod in one of the first acts of resistance against the tyrannical rule of King George III.

“Now, deliberately evoking its Revolutionary history, Brewster Town Meeting has formally condemned the antiterrorist USA Patriot Act, united against the laws of a different leader named George… The grass-roots opposition has forged an unlikely alliance of people angry at Washington’s domestic handling of the war on terror.”

In Brewster, anger at the Patriot Act has drawn together libertarians, an anti-tax group, and a Unitarian congregation, as well as a more traditional coalition of civil libertarians and anti-war activists. A similar story has played out in 16 Massachusetts communities, and 16 more, including Salem, Waltham, Watertown, Gloucester, Beverly, and Bedford, are preparing measures against the Patriot Act this spring.

“[This] bipartisan groundswell in communities across the nation,” the Globe continues, “will reshape the national debate if it continues to accelerate with support from disparate groups, from gun owners to librarians to fiscal conservatives.”

There is even support for revising some of the language of the Patriot Act from Marc Racicot, chairman of George W. Bush’s re-election campaign! The November 3 Weekly Standard quotes Racicot as saying:

“I’m not aware of any act, or any piece of legislation… that has ultimately ended up in a situation where it did not have to be refined.” Racicot added that he expects there will be “refinements [to the Patriot Act ]… so that it does not end up invading the civil rights of any American.” Tell that to the president and the attorney general!

So why isn’t the Democratic Party making the Bush-Ashcroft war on the Bill of Rights a central part of the presidential campaign — joining the groundswell extending from Brewster all across the country?