Ashcroft-Bashing Could End Up Hurting Democrats

Posted September 10, 2003 at 3:02pm

To observe this Sept. 11, 2001, anniversary, I urge critics of Attorney General John Ashcroft — especially the Democratic presidential candidates — to read the article “The Falling Man” in the current Esquire. [IMGCAP(1)]

A photo on page 176 shows the article’s subject plunging headfirst from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Taken by celebrated Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, the picture was printed once in various newspapers — then banned by the U.S. media as too awful for public consumption.

The riveting article, by Tom Junod, chronicles the search to identify the “falling man,” but the larger point for today, two years later, is that hundreds of people were driven by heat and smoke to leap to their deaths before the towers collapsed.

The article is must-reading because — since the horror of the jumpers has been hushed up — it’s a new wake-up call about the menace of terrorism.

Al Qaeda is still out there. Cells may be operating right here in the United States. Osama bin Laden still wants to wreak terror on America. Radical Islamicists have declared that using weapons of mass destruction to kill women and children is part of the holy duty of jihad.

As Bob Woodward reports in his book “Bush At War,” President Bush’s first order to Ashcroft after 9/11 was that his job no longer was to prosecute terrorists as criminals, but to prevent them from attacking America again. And that’s what Ashcroft has tried to do — so far, successfully.

Yet, to listen to Ashcroft’s critics, one would think he was a greater threat to American well-being than bin Laden or the terrorist leader’s top planner, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

The loudest of the critics is the Democrats’ frontrunning candidate, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who has outrageously said that Ashcroft is the worst attorney general in American history, worse than Richard Nixon’s AG, John Mitchell. “And he was a criminal,” Dean noted.

Dean also declared that “John Ashcroft is not a patriot. John Ashcroft is a descendant of Joe McCarthy.”

In the so-called Democratic presidential debates, does anyone besides Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) ever call Dean on the things he says?

After all, Mitchell organized a burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters and helped cover it up. McCarthy used anti-Communism to ruin lives and terrorize the entire U.S. political system.

Ashcroft doesn’t begin to compare with either scoundrel. And, whatever limited infringements on civil liberties he has presided over, they don’t begin to compare with those America has experienced in prior wars — Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus or Franklin Roosevelt’s internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans for four years.

Instead of rebutting Dean’s overstatements, his rivals are competing with him to ride a wave of Ashcroft-phobia raging semi-hysterically on the American left — and also, to some extent, on the right.

At the Congressional Black Caucus debate Tuesday night in Baltimore, Ashcroft’s next-most vociferous critic, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), said that “the last thing we need to do is turn our rights, our freedom and our liberties over to John Ashcroft.”

Edwards also repeated the canard, spread by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, that Ashcroft has FBI agents “going to our libraries and keeping records of the books we’re checking out.”

Under the U.S.A. Patriot Act, which Edwards voted for along with 97 other Senators, the government is entitled to search business records — and, yes, library records — in pursuit of potential terrorists. It takes a court order to do so, however, as it does in regular criminal cases.

It’s a fact that the 9/11 terrorists used computers at public libraries to communicate with one another. Does Edwards seriously think that the FBI is snooping into the check-out records of average citizens, when it fears an al Qaeda attack?

Dean and Edwards are in the lead, but all the Democratic candidates take routine swipes at Ashcroft, rousing crowds by saying that their first act as president would be to fire him. Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) said that, under Ashcroft, “you are losing your rights.”

Ashcroft does invite criticism and his activities deserve rigorous Congressional oversight. He once implied that anyone opposing his efforts was, in effect, aiding terrorists. Now, he acknowledges that debates about civil liberties are healthy.

In May, the Justice Department’s inspector general reported that, of 762 illegal aliens detained after 9/11, 54 were held for more than three months, 130 were denied counsel and some were harshly treated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.

Ashcroft pig-headedly refused to apologize for the excesses, but the fact is that it was his department that reported them. Also, we are talking here about ill-treatment of a few hundred people in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, an understandable — but unfortunate — side effect of our zeal to root out the terrorists.

Another legitimate criticism of Bush policy is that, theoretically, a U.S. citizen could be declared an “enemy combatant” and detained permanently, without counsel, or even tried and executed by a military tribunal without appeal. This should be changed to permit court review, but the number of cases involved here will be miniscule.

If Democrats flail Ashcroft now, imagine what they’ll say if another terrorist attack occurs and he has somehow failed to “connect the dots.” What he’s trying to do is find the dots.

Democrats should tone down their Ashcroft-bashing if for no other reason than what he’s doing has public support. The latest Gallup poll shows that only 21 percent of Americans think the Bush administration has gone “too far” in restricting civil liberties to fight terrorism.

An overwhelming majority, 74 percent, think its efforts are “about right” or don’t go far enough. Most Americans remember what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and, along with Ashcroft, never want it to happen again.