Ashcroft, not duct tape

Posted: Feb 17, 2003 12:00 AM
The Bush administration's advice to Americans to protect their homes with duct tape and plastic sheeting has been roundly ridiculed. Is this, critics ask, our only line of defense against a dirty bomb or a biological or chemical attack? Tape? Of course, the Bush administration is undertaking major efforts to monitor and apprehend terrorists before they do anything that might prompt people to duct tape their windows. This is what Democrats are loath to admit: It is Attorney General John Ashcroft who is the best defense against a domestic attack. That hasn't stopped liberals from screaming at most every measure he has undertaken to protect Americans, whether it's increased powers for the FBI or a (now abandoned) telephone tip line. With news that the United States has "specific information" that al-Qaida operatives overseas are planning and funding new attacks, possibly including devastating ones here in the United States, the Bush administration should shift to an "Ashcroft plus" phase in the domestic-terror war. It should ask Congress to give the FBI still more authority to investigate terror suspects, and better develop its use of the military system in terrorism cases. The administration is considering souping up the USA Patriot Act passed after the Sept. 11 attacks. The most important fix would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which suspects can be monitored if there is reason to believe that they are agents of a foreign power or a terrorist group. This provision of the law should be known as the Moussaoui exception, for suspected 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui. Because the FBI had no evidence that Moussaoui was a member of a terrorist group rather than just a free-floating fanatic, it couldn't get an FISA warrant to search his computer, and possibly pre-empt 9/11. The law should be changed to apply to extremists with no known affiliation like Moussaoui. The administration is also considering proposing an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act so that the names of suspects detained in connection with terrorist cases can be kept secret. Because terrorists don't simply call each other every day ("Hi, how's the chemical attack coming?"), ringleaders might not immediately know who has been caught. There is no reason to tell them. On another front, the administration should begin to use its system of military tribunals. The trial of Moussaoui, originally scheduled for last October, has now been delayed for the third time, from Jan. 6 to June 30 to who knows when? A key sticking point is whether Moussaoui or his lawyers get to question detained top 9/11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh. The United States fears disrupting Binalshibh's interrogation, since information from him could lead to other brewing terror plots. But it's hard to square denying Moussaoui access to Binalshibh with the dictates of the civilian justice system -- a military tribunal, with more security-conscious rules, is the answer. The military detentions of captured operatives like Jose Padilla, denying them access to lawyers who will counsel them not to talk, are also crucial to effective interrogations. It is a propitious moment for the administration to push "Ashcroft plus," since even Democrats want to sound tough on homeland security. Hillary Clinton accused Bush of not doing enough in a recent speech: "We need to create more than a [homeland security] department. We need to create a deterrent." Deterrent -- whoa, sounds fearsome. Does she mean pre-emptive arrests? Hellfire missile snuff-outs overseas? Uh, no. "We can do this," she explains, "by filling some of the major gaps left by Sept. 11th, like tracking the health of the first soldiers in this new war who lived and worked and volunteered at Ground Zero, and coordinating our relief services in a national 2-1-1 line." Such are the limits of Democrats, who are beholden to ethnic and civil-liberty pressure groups, on homeland security. If protecting the homeland means more FBI powers, more secrecy and more military detentions, many Bush critics would rather rely on duct tape after all.