Trust Us, We’re the Government
Attorney General John Ashcroft has embarked on a bizarre promotional tour to counter growing public opposition to the Patriot Act. The administration clearly is worried by recent votes in Congress to limit the scope of the Act, votes that reflect the willingness of even GOP loyalists to buck the president on the issue. So Mr. Ashcroft is visiting several cities to give a stump speech that essentially says this: Trust us we’re the government, and we say the Patriot Act does not threaten civil liberties.
But the attorney general misses the point. Government assurances are not good enough in a free society. The overwhelming burden must always be placed on government to justify any new encroachment on our liberty. Now that the emotions of September 11th have cooled, the American people are less willing to blindly accept terrorism as an excuse for expanding federal surveillance powers.
Furthermore, Mr. Ashcroft is an administrator, not a legislator. It is not his job to write laws or say what the law should be. His job is to execute the laws passed by Congress. It is not his place to chide Congress or the American people for not supporting his viewpoint. He certainly should not be spending taxpayer money to lobby for his political positions.
Mr. Ashcroft complains that the Patriot Act is misunderstood. But it’s not the American public’s fault nobody knows exactly what the Patriot Act does. The Act contains over 500 pages of detailed legalese, the full text of which was neither read nor made available to Congress before it was voted on which by itself should have convinced members to vote against it. Many of the surveillance powers authorized in the Act are not clearly defined and have not yet been tested. When they are tested, court challenges are sure to follow. The Act’s complexity is even more troubling when we consider how powers given to the Justice department today might be abused by future administrations.
It is clear, however, that the Patriot Act expands the government’s ability to monitor us. The Act eases federal rules for search warrants in some cases; allows expanded wiretaps and Internet monitoring; allows secret sneak and peek searches; and even permits federal agents to examine library and bookstore records. On these grounds alone it should be soundly rejected.
Mr. Ashcroft was not always so cavalier about civil liberties. Consider the following statement by then-Senator Ashcroft during the Clinton years:
The Clinton administration would like the federal government to have the capability to read any international or domestic computer communications. The FBI wants access to decode, digest, and discuss financial transactions, personal e-mail, and proprietary information sent abroad all in the name of national security.
The administration’s interest in all e-mail is a wholly unhealthy precedent, especially given this administration’s track record on FBI files and IRS snooping. Every medium by which people communicate can be subject to exploitation by those with illegal intentions. Nevertheless, this is no reason to hand Big Brother the keys to unlock our e-mail diaries, open our ATM records, read our medical records, or translate our international communications…The implications here are far-reaching, with impacts that touch individual users, companies, libraries, universities, teachers, and students.
The attorney general’s blatant flip-flop can of course be ascribed to partisan politics. Like many conservatives, Mr. Ashcroft correctly understood that the Clinton Justice department did not believe in the rule of law and terribly abused its power. Yet even after the Janet Reno debacles, he wants us to believe that his Justice department and future departments can be entrusted with more power.
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