There are those who wrongly believe that the debate over civil liberties in this country breaks along ideological grounds. It's an easy mistake to make: Especially when Attorney General John Ashcroft, a certified -- and, arguably, certifiable -- conservative is treating the Constitution like it was a threat to America.
The important thing to remember is that Ashcroft's misguided war on individual rights has been supported at key turns by top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Both Democrats backed the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT last fall, as did the overwhelming majority of their fellow Congressional Democrats. And both Daschle and Gephardt have been troublingly mild in their criticism of Ashcroft's recent attempt to interpret that legislation in a manner guaranteed to undermine Constitutional protections.
To be sure, criticism of Ashcroft's excesses has not fit into the easy stereotypes that are often used to analyze Congress. US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who broke with Democrats to back Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, cast the sole Senate vote against Ashcroft's anti-terrorism legislation. Georgia conservative Bob Barr and California liberal Maxine Waters, bitter foes during the Clinton impeachment fight of 1998, held a joint press conference to condemn the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties.
That opposition to Ashcroft's assault on the Constitution does not follow predictable patterns became evident last week, when House Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wi., emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the administration's latest initiatives in the ever-expanding domestic "war on terrorism."
Sensenbrenner, an old-fashioned conservative Republican who has represented a suburban Milwaukee district since 1979, has forged a remarkably solid working relationship with the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Michigan's John Conyers. Sensenbrenner and Conyers attempted to temper the anti-terrorism legislation when it came before their committee last fall, only to have some of their most important efforts thwarted by Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
In his recent condemnations of Ashcroft's scheming, Sensenbrenner was sounding a lot like the liberal Conyers.
After Ashcroft issued new surveillance guidelines that would permit FBI monitoring of Internet sites, libraries, churches and political groups, Sensenbrenner said: "I believe that the Justice Department has gone too far."
While the Republican attorney general said new surveillance powers were needed to fight terrorism, the Republican House Judiciary Committee chair said those powers could return the United States to the "bad old days" of civil liberties abuses by the FBI.
Sensenbrenner has gone out of his way to remind the current Republican administration that the protections against FBI abuses of civil liberties that Ashcroft is now seeking to override were written under a Republican president, Gerald Ford. Arguing that the existing surveillance guidelines have served the country well, Sensenbrenner says he wants Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller to appear before the Judiciary Committee to justify proposed shifts.
"(The) question that I ask, and which I believe that Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller have to answer, is, Why do we need to change (the guidelines) now?" insists the conservative congressman.
"We want to make sure that the FBI, which hasn't had a good track record lately, doesn't go on the other side of the line," adds Sensenbrenner, who recently told CNN it was absurd "to throw respect for civil liberties into the trash heap" in order to strengthen the hand of the FBI.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is currently holding FBI oversight hearings. To his credit, Leahy says, "There is no institution of our government that should be above question."
But it would be nice if Leahy and other Democrats were as blunt as Sensenbrenner, who recalls former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of civil rights leaders and says, "I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying (they are interested in) going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King."