The legislative proposal that Attorney General John Ashcroft sent to Congress eight days after the Sept. 11 attacks was a draconian measure that proposed to vastly expand federal powers while endangering individual liberty.
Ashcroft, of course, is not the first federal official to respond to threats by restricting liberty. John Adams signed the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts to control and punish activity he considered harmful to American interests, including criticism of the federal government. In this century, people of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps, regardless of whether they were American-born citizens or immigrants. Memories of the Cold War excesses of Joseph McCarthy and of J.Edgar Hoover's FBI also serve as a reminder of how a government can abuse its powers to persecute its own citizens in the name of security. During the civil rights era, a largely unaccountable intelligence apparatus investigated Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders and then illegally spied on anti-war protesters.2
Ashcroft's legislative proposal aimed to radically broaden the government's wiretapping, surveillance and search-and-seizure authority, as well as its power to detain non-citizen suspects indefinitely while radically shrinking or abolishing meaningful judicial review or oversight of executive branch actions, a key part of our constitutional system of checks and balances. And it went well beyond the stated goal of fighting terrorism by expanding government police powers and restricting liberties in cases unrelated to terrorism.
Although the legislation proposed by Ashcroft underwent some revision on its way to final passage, and those will be noted later, it is worth reviewing the elements of the proposal he sent to Congress.