To hear leading Democrats -- and a few right-wing Republicans -- tell it, Attorney General John Ashcroft is a modern-day combination of Adolph Hitler and Atilla the Hun because he favors military tribunals for suspected terrorists and accused war criminals. Today, I'd like to consider whether that's a fair characterization of Ashcroft's proposals.
In a particularly wrong-headed editorial, the Reno Gazette-Journal recently asserted that the American judicial system was yet another "victim" of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington. "The attorney general appeared to turn the important doctrine of 'innocent until proven guilty' on its head," the RG-J opined. "The implications for the judicial system are, quite simply, frightening." The Reno daily echoed other liberal newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post, which have accused Ashcroft of subverting the Rule of Law and challenging the patriotism of dissenters.
But there's another side to this story. According to a recent survey by the Post itself and ABC News, more than 80 percent of Americans think the federal government IS doing enough to protect the civil and legal rights of accused terrorists, and 73 percent of ArabDAmericans agree. Nearly 80 percent of those questioned support plans by federal prosecutors to interview 5,000 young men here on temporary visas from the Middle East. And 90 percent of respondents believe our government is justified in detaining some 600 foreign nationals for immigration law violations. So Attorney General Ashcroft must be doing something right.
Ashcroft made no apologies for his tough approach on terrorism when he testified before Congress earlier this month. "We need honest, reasoned debate, not fear-mongering," he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "To those who pit Americans against immigrants and citizens against non-citizens ... my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our unity and diminish our resolve."
Well said! But the Washington Post lamented that Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and his Democratic colleagues went too easy on the attorney general, serving up "softball questions" and pulling their punches for fear they would be perceived as soft on terrorism. Of course the senators were afraid to take on President Bush, whose popularity ratings fluctuate between 85 and 90 percent.
Ashcroft summarized the challenge we face as follows: "One option is to call Sept. 11 a fluke and to live in a dream world that requires us to do nothing different. The other option is to fight back." Like most Americans, I favor option "B."
Now, let's look at how the Bush administration is dealing with suspected terrorists and prisoners of war who aren't U.S. citizens. Within the past 30 days, Ashcroft's Justice Department has issued rules allowing the FBI to eavesdrop on conversations between defense attorneys and suspected terrorists, ordering prosecutors to interview 5,000 young men who are visitors from the Middle East (remembering that all 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were here legally), and advocating a system of secret military tribunals for suspected terrorists and alleged war criminals who aren't American citizens.
The Justice Department also announced a plan to help foreigners gain U.S. citizenship or legal residence if they provide useful information about terrorist groups. In October, Congress passed the so-called Patriot Act, creating a new national tracking system to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the U.S., and to locate those who are already here.
Although critics as varied as the liberal Senator Leahy and ultra-conservative Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., complain that Ashcroft's anti-terrorist strategies may violate defendants' civil and legal rights and due process provisions of the Constitution, the attorney general believes such measures are necessary during wartime, and compares his efforts to those undertaken by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy against the Mafia and by President Franklin D. Roosevelt against the Nazis during WWII.
"There seems to be a lack of understanding that the country's at war," said an administration spokesman in defense of Ashcroft. "He (Ashcroft) fully and carefully considers the measures ... but once the decision is made, he has no doubts and does not waver."
Surprisingly, the Washington Post's own Supreme Court correspondent, Charles Lane, agrees and thinks most of the criticism is "overblown." "There's no need, or reason, to discuss the threat to liberty posed by the U.S. government in the same breath as the threat posed by terrorism itself," he wrote. "Viewed as the latest chapter in the long-running American story about how to balance security and liberty in wartime ... today's anti-terror crackdown seems quite defensible.... Bush's response is comparatively well-tailored to a clearly urgent threat."
In his well-reasoned article, Lane pointed out that "the United States confronts not only a criminal menace to its people and institutions, but also an armed campaign to impose a quasi-totalitarian political ideology, masquerading as religion, on a vast region of the earth."
That's why the conservative Weekly Standard contends that it's "ludicrous" to suggest that Osama bin Laden will deserve full constitutional protections if he's captured by American forces. Using the same reasoning, bin Laden's lawyers could argue that he has a Second Amendment right to bear arms. While "American Taliban" John Walker, a U.S. citizen, will probably be tried in federal court, bin Laden should go before a military tribunal at a remote location -- preferably on a ship at sea -- to avoid turning his trial into an international media spectacle.
For people like bin Laden and his murderous associates, a military tribunal is more than they deserve. After all, what "rights" would we have under al-Qaeda or Taliban "justice?" The correct answer is "None" because we'd be summarily executed without a trial, simply for being Americans. Think about that reality before you criticize Attorney General Ashcroft. Happy New Year!
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.