UP AGAINST ASHCROFT

Democratic criticism was so tempered during Attorney General John Ashcroft's December 6 appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the hyperventilating Wall Street Journal was right to term the session a "political rout" in Ashcroft's favor. When a fired-up Ashcroft declared that civil-liberties critics "aid terrorists…erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," the Democrats, wary of George W. Bush's sky-high poll numbers, barely pushed back. Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, says, "It is an open question whether Democrats and moderate Republicans have the will to stand up to Ashcroft and the right-wingers, who practice the politics of intimidation." Where does that leave civil libertarians? Where they have had most successes–the courts. People for the American Way, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the ACLU are exploring the possibility of challenging the Ashcroft order that permits the government to monitor conversations between detainees and attorneys. The Center for Democracy and Technology is trying to determine if any Internet service provider has received an over-broad government order instructing it to hand over electronic records of a customer. The Center for National Security Studies, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and seventeen other groups filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Justice Department seeking information on the more than 1,000 individuals arrested or detained after September 11 (The Nation is a plaintiff in that case). "The Attorney General, in defending his policies, says there have been no lawsuits," notes Anthony Romero, the executive director of the ACLU. "He should hold on to his horses. They're coming."

 

CASUALTIES ON BOTH SIDES

Robert Fisk, correspondent for The Independent and a Nation contributor, smelled trouble when his jeep broke down in the town of Kila Abdullah, near the Afghan-Pakistani border. A crowd of refugees gathered, at first friendly but then turning angry. Stones began flying. Fisk was grabbed and beaten until blood streamed down his face. He fought back and managed to break free. As he braced for another assault, a Muslim cleric took his arm and calmly escorted him to a Red Cross/Red Crescent ambulance, which carried him to a hospital. Later Fisk wrote: "The people who were assaulted were the Afghans, the scars inflicted by us–by B-52s…. If I was an Afghan refugee in Kila Abdullah, I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find."

 

IT HAPPENED IN HOUSTON

The minuscule Art Car Museum in Houston does shows of cutting-edge art, but its staff never expected that one of them would bring the Feds knocking on the door. Last month agents from the FBI and the Secret Service arrived and methodically toured the gallery, occasionally querying the meaning of a topical but obscure piece. They took a particular interest in "Empty Trellis," a sketch of George W. Bush behind a steel trellis, created before September 11 as a criticism of environmental policy. Later, Houston FBI spokesman Bob Dobuim told the Houston Press that the bureau had received a complaint that "Empty Trellis" threatened the President, hence the Secret Service man. In accordance with our Attorney General's call for Americans to be extra vigilant, the FBI was checking out all reports of things deemed "un-American or a concern or a threat."

 

PEACE BLACKOUT?

Peace demonstrations these days receive scant attention in the media. David Potorti reports that he and several other members of families who lost someone in the September 11 attack made a march "for healing and peace" from the Pentagon to the World Trade Center. At Union Square park in New York, members of the group made speeches calling for an end to the war in Afghanistan and a search for alternatives to violence so other innocent families would not suffer as they had. The Sunday New York Times ran a prominent picture of the marchers but all their signs were cropped out and there was no explanation of the purpose of the march. None of the other media covering the event ran stories. And our friends at Peaceflags, which sells an American flag with the fifty stars arranged as a peace symbol, tell us that CNN canceled a story on them at the last minute, explaining that because it was for a "sponsored segment," headquarters in Atlanta "pulled the plug on the story." The prevailing attitude seems typified by the Washington Post's coverage of an antiwar demo involving some 60,000 people: The only picture showed a lone prowar demonstrator.

 

PRICE ANDERSON: STEALTH RENEWAL

While you were watching the war news, the House of Representatives hastily and with no debate renewed the Price Anderson Act, which limits the liability of nuclear power generators in the event of an accident. Most sober estimates of the damage from a serious accident range up to $500 billion, yet Price Anderson caps the industry's liability at $9.5 billion. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has concluded that plants are vulnerable to attacks like those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And nuclear waste storage areas around US reactors are even more vulnerable. The renewal bill also facilitates construction of the new Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, which has no containment structure. The bill is now in the Senate. See Matt Bivens's web piece, "Who Pays for Nuclear Power?" and sign an online petition.

 

NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW

The Washington Times's "Inside the Beltway" column reported that a new book by author William Doyle "contains FBI and Pentagon documents detailing a surprise raid" at Ole Miss in 1962, by troops of the 716th Military Police Battalion. Their target: the Sigma Nu house. Inside, the MPs "seized and removed a total of 24 weapons: 21 shotguns, a .22 rifle, a .30 rifle and a .22 Colt pistol." The president of Sigma Nu at the time was the popular cheerleader Trent Lott, who has since risen to his present eminence as Senate minority leader. Lott has declined comment.