The weekend before Thanksgiving, as the Taliban fled into the Hindu Kush and America's children flocked to Harry Potter, the nation's opinion formers suddenly discovered that the Bush Administration had hijacked the Constitution with the Patriot Act and the order for military tribunals. Time burst out that "War Is Hell (on Your Civil Liberties)." The New York Times began to run big news stories about John Ashcroft as if he were running an off-the-shelf operation, clandestinely consummating all those dreams of Oliver North back in Reagan time about suspending the Constitution.
In the Washington Post for November 15 Richard Cohen discarded his earlier defenses of Ashcroft and declared the Attorney General to be "the scariest man in government." Five days earlier, a New York Times editorial was particularly incensed about suspension of attorney-client privileges in federal jails, with monitoring of all conversations. For the Hearst papers, Helen Thomas reported on November 17 that Ashcroft "is riding roughshod over individual rights" and cited Ben Franklin to the effect that "if we give up our essential rights for some security, we are in danger of losing both."
In this sudden volley of urgent barks from the dogs of the Fourth Estate, the first yelp came on November 15, from William Safire. In fine fury Safire burst out in his first paragraph that "misadvised by a frustrated and panic-stricken attorney general, a president of the United States has just assumed what amounts to dictatorial power." Safire lashed out at "military kangaroo courts" and flayed Bush as a proto-Julius Caesar.
Even mainstream politicians began to wail about the theft of liberty. Vermont's independent Senator Jim Jeffords proclaimed on November 19 that "I am very concerned about my good friend John Ashcroft. Having 1,000 people locked up with no right to habeas corpus is a deep concern." Jeffords said that he felt his own role in swinging the Senate to Democratic control was vindicated because it had permitted his fellow senator from Vermont, Democrat Patrick Leahy, to battle the White House's increased police powers, as made legal in the terrorism bill.
Speak, memory! It is not as though publication on November 13 of Bush's presidential order on military tribunals for Al Qaeda members and sympathizers launched the onslaught on civil liberties. Recall that the terrorism bill was sent to Congress on September 19. Nor were the contents of that proposed legislation unfamiliar, since in large part they had been offered by the Clinton Administration as portions of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. Well before the end of September, Ashcroft's proposals to trash the Bill of Rights were available for inspection and debate.
At the time when it counted, when a volley of remonstrance from the watchdogs might have provoked resistance in Congress, amended the Patriot bill and warned Bush not to try his luck with military courts, there was mostly silence from the opinion makers, aside from amiable discussions of the propriety of torture. Taken as a whole, the US press did not raise adequate alarm about legislation designed to give the FBI full snoop powers on the Internet; to deny habeas corpus to noncitizens; to expand even further the warrantless searches unleashed in the Clinton era with new powers given in 1995 to secret courts. These courts operated under the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978, in the Carter years.