"Why did this hearing, er, er, er..."
I was approaching an aide to a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had minutes earlier completed a three-hour session with Attorney General John Ashcroft, and I was trying to ask a question politely.
"Suck?" the aide said. I nodded. There was no denying it. This much-ballyhooed face-off between Ashcroft and Senate Democrats was more fizzle than sizzle.
The Democrats had called Ashcroft before the committee to discuss the civil liberties implications of various Bush antiterrorism initiatives, most notably military tribunals for suspected terrorists who are not US citizens, the detention of noncitizens and the monitoring of conversations between such suspects and their attorneys. In the past few weeks, Ashcroft and the Administration have received criticism on these fronts, with committee chair Pat Leahy and other members of Congress (though not many) grousing that the White House had decided on these policies without consulting Congress. Thus, this hearing had the makings of a Washington showdown. Dozens of reporters were present. Ted Koppel stood at the back of the SRO committee room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Bob Schieffer roamed. Al Sharpton sat silently in the audience. NPR was broadcasting live; the cable networks were present to air live cut-ins. The crowd was anticipating combustion.
Yet the Democrats hardly discomforted the Attorney General. As he defended the Administration's policies, Ashcroft ably diverted or absorbed most of their thrusts. He was rarely placed on the spot. The Democrats' criticism was generally tempered and dispassionate. The most pointed remarks were delivered by Ashcroft and Senator Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican on the committee.
In stern fashion, Hatch warned Democrats not to engage in "aggressive oversight" that "becomes counterproductive" and forces the Justice Department to spend "all its time responding to inquiries from our committee...and none of its time actually tracking down terrorists." With a smile, he quoted from a statement released the day before by Senator Zell Miller, a nominal Democrat from Georgia: "Let Attorney General Ashcroft do his job.... These nitpickers need to find another nit to pick. They need to stop protecting the rights of terrorists."
In his opening statement, Ashcroft unleashed the harshest attack of the day. He blasted his critics, claiming that "their bold declarations of so-called fact have quickly dissolved, upon inspection, into vague conjecture. Charges of 'kangaroo courts' and 'shredding the Constitution' give new meaning to the term 'the fog of war.'" Then he went on to assert that the critics were threats to the nation's security: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists--for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."
During the hearing, no Democrat challenged Ashcroft's assault upon his critics. Leading off the questioning, Leahy explored, in a legalistic manner, the fine points of Bush's proposed use of military tribunals. Ashcroft explained, as he would repeatedly throughout the day, that the operational details of the tribunals will be drafted by the Defense Department, because Bush established these commissions under his power as Commander in Chief. Which meant, Ashcroft continued, that he and the Justice Department were not in charge of the tribunals. In other words, you got the wrong guy.