Understanding Ashcroft

Understanding Ashcroft

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I am beginning to suspect that Nation readers may not fully appreciate the challenges Attorney General John Ashcroft faces. What would you do in his place? Your intelligence agencies had no advance knowledge of the September 11 plot and don’t appear to know much more about future attackers. Airport security screeners are letting test bombs and guns pass at alarming rates, and your immigration agency is so hapless that it issued visa extensions to two of the hijackers six months after they died flying planes into the World Trade Center towers. When you consider the threat from their side and the incompetence on ours, it’s understandable that Ashcroft has cast his net so wide. He’s shooting in the dark. In fact, the expanse of his net is probably inversely proportional to the depth of the intelligence he has received.

But just as with the terrorists themselves, understanding Ashcroft’s motives does not justify his actions. To date, despite the thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants arrested, searched, profiled and questioned, Ashcroft has charged only a single person–Zaccarias Moussaoui–with any involvement in the attacks of September 11. And he was arrested before the attacks occurred. Such broad-brush tactics are unlikely to succeed, for they give notice to potential targets, allowing them to evade detection while alienating the very communities we must work with to identify potential threats who may be living among them.

Ashcroft has shown no signs of getting closer to his target. And the less he finds, the wider he sweeps. He recently announced that he was extending to 3,000 more people his much-criticized initiative to subject male immigrants from Arab countries to “voluntary” interviews, despite the fact that the initial interviews have led to no further charges in the investigation. And having learned how easy it is to use immigration law as a pretext for criminal law enforcement when you lack probable cause, the Justice Department is now preparing to enlist local police officers to help enforce immigration law, a disastrous proposal likely to drive immigrant communities even deeper underground.

The lengths to which Ashcroft will go was revealed most recently by his indictment of Lynne Stewart, a 62-year-old New York attorney who has made a career of courageously taking on clients for whom few other lawyers are willing to risk their reputations. Her most notorious such case was defending Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman in his 1995 criminal trial for conspiring to bomb the tunnels into Manhattan. Now she’s charged with providing “material support” to the sheik’s organization, the Egypt-based Islamic Group, largely by abetting communications between the sheik–whom prison regulations prohibit from communicating with virtually anyone in the outside world–and others in the group.

The government simultaneously announced that it will make Rahman its test case for its unprecedented initiative to listen in on attorney-client communications. Confidential exchanges with lawyers have long been sacrosanct, because they are critical to any fair legal process. In the past, they could be intruded upon only with a warrant based on probable cause that the communications were intentionally furthering criminal activity, but the new regulations permit monitoring without a warrant or probable cause. But under regulations issued after September 11, the government claims the authority to monitor attorney-client communications without establishing probable cause for believing that the communications are being used for illegal ends, and without obtaining authorization from a judge.

Most troubling, Ashcroft is prosecuting Stewart although she has not been charged with furthering any illegal or violent activity of the Islamic Group, a wide-ranging Islamic political movement that engages in a great deal of lawful activity in addition to terrorism. While many have criticized the government for targeting a lawyer, of far more concern is its criminalization of speech and associations having no connection to terrorism. Unable to link Stewart to any actual terrorist activity in any way, Ashcroft has resorted to guilt by association. As a US citizen, Stewart will at least have an opportunity to defend herself in a public trial. Not so the hundreds of noncitizens still being detained on immigration charges in connection with the September 11 investigation, many long after their immigration proceedings have concluded. Under orders from Ashcroft, they are being tried in secret proceedings closed to the public, press, legal observers and family members.

In a major setback for the Ashcroft agenda, US District Judge Nancy Edmunds on April 3 declared the closed proceedings unconstitutional. She ruled that open trials are a fundamental feature of our justice system and that any closure must be carried out not in the sweeping manner that Ashcroft so favors but through means narrowly tailored to protect national security interests. The government has appealed, arguing that to act in a more narrowly tailored fashion might tip off Al Qaeda to what we do and don’t know. But one has to wonder whether the government’s real concern isn’t that opening the proceedings might tip off the public to just how wildly John Ashcroft is shooting in the dark.

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