Has Ashcroft gone too far?

Posted: Oct 16, 2002 12:00 AM
John Ashcroft's appointment as attorney general raised serious questions about whether morality and law make the best of bedfellows. Citing his fondness for Jesus' law, as opposed to America's law, and his penchant for early-morning prayer, the Democrats bloodied Ashcroft as a Bible-beating Jesus freak. Most conservatives, including myself, considered the labels compliments. Very simply, we reasoned that Ashcroft's deep and abiding religious conviction implied a sturdy sense of right and wrong. With Ashcroft, we had reason to believe that the laws would no longer be subject to relativistic reasoning and emotional whims, as had been the case during the Reno years. On the contrary, someone who regarded the world in terms of moral certainties would now dispense laws. Ashcroft's sense of moral certainty was perfectly embodied by his response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Undeterred by political correctness, Ashcroft proceeded to round up several hundred "special interest detainees." He did so without regard to civil rights organizations. Nor did he seem overly concerned with the Bill of Rights. Even more tellingly, Ashcroft made no discernible effort to ease the worries of those Democrats that had so ruthlessly attacked him during the confirmation process. (Often, when a politician undergoes a particularly brutal confirmation, he will feel some subconscious need to pander to his detractors - to prove to them that he's not so bad after all.) Ashcroft's sense of right and wrong was so sturdy that he had little choice but to act decisively - without regard to whether his critics might wag their fingers at him. Plainly, Ashcroft is not a man prone to ponder possible outcomes so endlessly and senselessly that he consigns himself to inaction. This is not Hamlet. This is a man who ducks his head down and barrels forward. This is the sort of pit bull this country needed in the wake of 9-11. Those very qualities that Democrats denounced in Ashcroft are precisely the qualities that allowed him to act so decisively. Ah, but does Ashcroft's sense of morality make him the best person for the job now? A recent policy paper by the Free Congress Foundation suggests that perhaps Ashcroft is pushing a bit too far unto those rights we associate with happiness. The report focuses on a series of changes Ashcroft's office enacted in the domestic guidelines for FBI investigations. Notably, Ashcroft loosened the privacy laws that prohibit preliminary investigations from intruding upon an individual's right to privacy. As J. Bradley Jansen, former deputy director of the Center for Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation observed, these changes do nothing to help authorities investigate or apprehend terrorists, since investigations into foreign terror groups follows a separate protocol - the foreign guidelines for FBI investigation. Jansen further noted that these changes might, however, compromise the FBI's ability to investigate terrorist threats by simply inundating the organization with more - though not necessarily more useful - information. "Sweeping more information in, as will be allowed by the new FBI guidelines, will not lead to better analysis of the existing data," said Jansen. "The fact is the FBI simply cannot handle all of the data that it is currently collecting. There is an inverse relationship between quality and quantity." Bottom line: Ashcroft's new guidelines could, in effect, loosen our right to privacy and undermine the FBI's ability to carry out its duty. In typical fashion, Ashcroft made these policy changes quickly and decisively. These are the character traits that served us well following the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, more than a year later, perhaps it is time to go back to being contemplative about those basic rights we associate with happiness.