Congress must challenge moves by Attorney General Ashcroft to undermine civil liberties and evade constitutional system of checks and balances
As the Senate Judiciary Committee prepared to hear testimony from U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas urged committee members and congressional leaders to hold Attorney General Ashcroft and President George W. Bush accountable for recent actions that undermine civil liberties and threaten the system of checks and balances that is at the heart of our democracy.
“Democratic principles and constitutional protections are being steadily eroded by Attorney General Ashcroft,” said Neas. “It’s time for Congress to insist that the attorney general demonstrates respect for our Constitution and laws by his actions, not just by his words. And it is past time for members of Congress to stand up and fight when the nation’s Constitution and laws are under serious assault.”
“Former FBI leaders suggest that John Ashcroft is resurrecting the discredited tactics of J. Edgar Hoover,” Neas said. He cited recent Washington Post and New York Times articles reporting comments by many former FBI officials—including William Webster, a conservative Republican from Missouri and former FBI and CIA Director under Ronald Reagan— that raised serious concerns about the Justice Department’s current tactics. They said this arrest-and-detain approach hasn’t worked in the past, might undercut efforts to infiltrate terrorist cells, and could lead to abuses of civil liberties. News reports indicate that a number of senior FBI and Justice Department officials disagree strongly with some of Ashcroft’s initiatives.
“As the nation’s top law enforcement officer,” Neas continued, “the attorney general must uphold our Constitution and laws, not try to amend them by executive fiat.”
Neas cited a series of deeply disturbing actions by Ashcroft and other administration officials to simultaneously expand use of police powers while weakening or eliminating judicial review on issues relating to surveillance, detention and the right to legal counsel, and the administration’s extraordinarily broad executive order to create, without congressional input, secret military tribunals that would operate without any appeal to any court.
“Judicial review and congressional oversight are not annoyances to be brushed aside – they are fundamental to our constitutional form of government,” said Neas. “Our history demonstrates clearly that unbridled power in a time of national crisis leads to abuses and to abridgement of our civil liberties.”
“Of course it is imperative that the government has effective tools for bringing terrorists to justice and preventing future attacks,” Neas said, “People For the American Way has supported efforts to update and strengthen our laws, but opposed proposals that restricted judicial review or went well beyond addressing terrorism.”
Neas noted that Ashcroft’s actions have generated concerns across the political spectrum, including right-wing, conservative and progressive commentators and Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
Among the areas that Neas said have caused concerns about the attorney general’s commitment to constitutional and civil liberties are:
expanded power to eavesdrop on attorney-client conversations without meaningful judicial oversight, which undermines the right to legal counsel and the Fourth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution.
support for the executive order on military tribunals that does not adhere to the standards of our own system of military justice or our civilian courts. The order as written provides powers that are in fact far more sweeping than administration officials have characterized them publicly. It allows secret tribunals to try, convict and execute suspects without any appeal to any court. And its language covers not only individuals captured on the battlefield but also 18 million non-citizen residents of America. This extremely broad order was issued without consultation with Congress.
expanded use of power to detain individuals for extended periods of time without judicial oversight, and resistance to providing the public and Congress with important information about detainees, such as the reasons for and length of detention. Yesterday, People For the American Way Foundation and a number of other organizations filed suit against the Justice Department, challenging its refusal to release information about detainees under the Freedom of Information Act.
seeking to question 5,000 Middle Eastern men living legally in the U.S., a tactic called problematic by former FBI officials. Oliver “Buck” Revell, former FBI executive assistant director and architect of the bureau’s anti-terrorism strategy in the 1980s, said this strategy “is not effective” and “really guts the values of our society, which you cannot allow the terrorists to do.”
potential revision of regulations regarding FBI surveillance of domestic religious and political groups, protections put in place after revelations about the abuses of the Hoover-era Cointelpro program.
People For the American Way has called on Congress to take the following steps:
Congress should insist that the administration restore to the judicial and legislative branches their rightful and constitutional roles. Meaningful judicial review and oversight should not be short-circuited by the attorney general or other federal officials.
Congress should urge federal law enforcement officials to follow and respect existing legal avenues. There are already legal avenues through which federal officials can seek authority for taking extraordinary actions in the interest of protecting the health and safety of Americans.
House and Senate leaders should develop a plan to provide ongoing oversight for the nation’s anti-terrorism efforts. To avoid duplicative efforts and ensure proper oversight, we urge the leadership in both chambers to determine, in a bipartisan spirit, the appropriate committees to fulfill this critical role.
A congressional board of inquiry should be established to examine the events and environment within which the Sept. 11 tragedies occurred. This inquiry should review the work of our nation’s intelligence forces and law enforcement agencies, with the goal of learning lessons and preventing future catastrophes, rather than casting blame. Such efforts also could be valuable in determining whether there is truly a need for changes in federal investigative or police powers, rather than basing changes on the assumptions of the attorney general—without Congressional or judicial approval.
A series of reports on the actions and record of Attorney General John Ashcroft are available at www.pfaw.org.