The Magazine

That Devil Ashcroft

From the March 3, 2002 issue: John Ashcroft: civil-liberties menace?

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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A FEW WEEKS BACK, a Washington-based "investigative research" outfit called the Center for Public Integrity announced that it had recently "obtained" a large and significant set of confidential legal papers from someone inside the Justice Department--a someone whose name the Center for Public Integrity did not make public, his integrity being of a sort that bar association ethics panels and the department's own Office of Professional Responsibility tend not to recognize.

Never mind that, though. For CPI executive director Charles Lewis, the leak was a stroke of purest good fortune. He runs a scrupulously nonpartisan shop, you understand, and his donor list represents the full spectrum of American viewpoints, from the Gaia Fund to the Streisand Foundation and everything in between, and he cares only for the public interest, let the chips fall where they may. Okay, sure: If by chance, when fall they do, those chips should happen to embarrass a Republican, like that awful John Ashcroft fellow, well, then the good folks at CPI probably aren't going to start weeping in their beer, exactly. But never mind that, either. What matters is that an anonymous, self-styled whistle-blower gave Charles Lewis a copy of the latest "secret" Big Brother plan being hatched by awful John Ashcroft's awful staff henchmen, and that Lewis then made out like Paul Revere, rushing to warn each Middlesex village and farm--and all the Justice Department beat reporters, too--of an imminent and positively "breathtaking" threat to the Republic and its freedoms.

Also, Lewis made a photographic facsimile of the document in question--apparently an advanced but less-than-final draft of omnibus anti-terrorism legislation provisionally entitled the "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003"--and posted it on CPI's Internet home page. Where it remains to this day, and where anybody interested might long ago have tracked it down and read the thing.

Which otherwise humble and obvious piece of information turns out to be the entire episode's explanatory linchpin, and much the most depressing aspect of all the overheated commentary it's occasioned. Because, as anybody who does take the trouble to track down and read the "Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003" very quickly begins to suspect, the overheated commentary it's occasioned is ill-informed--so freakishly ill-informed, in fact, as to constitute something close to an outright hoax, the punditry equivalent of one of those "I am treasurer of the Nigerian exile government" e-mail money scams. You wouldn't think it possible, but in this case, unfortunately, it cannot be dismissed out of hand: The pundits involved, Charles "Public Integrity" Lewis included, may barely have glanced at, much less earnestly studied, the very same Justice Department proposal they claim to find scandalous.

Yet none among the claimants seems ever to have been bothered by the fear he might be exposed as a humbug. None has hesitated to allege--by reference to wholly imaginary details purportedly contained in a draft legislative package Ashcroft has not yet been presented for review--that the attorney general of the United States, left to his own devices, would dismember the Bill of Rights and establish a police-state autocracy in its place. What's more, far worse, it's not at all clear that the confidence with which Messrs. Lewis & Co. are circulating such a paranoid fantasy is the slightest bit misplaced. Demonstrably paranoid and fantastic the notion may be, but these days, for some reason, a great many perfectly respectable Americans have come to accept it, on some level, as truth--the kind of postulatory truth that's immune to disproof. Everybody knows that John Ashcroft is a not-so-closet fascist, just as everybody once knew that the Sun orbited Earth. And practically no one who isn't a Bush administration political appointee seems prepared to raise much fuss in dissent.

Try counting the dissenters on your fingers if you think we exaggerate. The depth and ubiquity--and the gestural, pietistic, sub-rational character--of suspicion and contempt now routinely directed against federal law enforcement initiatives, real or prospective, obeys no standard boundary of politics or ideology. What John Ashcroft proposes, a veritable universe of articulate American opinion lately opposes, pretty much sight unseen. And not everybody in that universe depends for his salary on the Gaia Fund or Streisand Foundation. At least where the Justice Department's present "war on privacy" is concerned, what meaningful difference any longer exists, at the end of the day, between a man like Charles Lewis and...oh, say, Bill O'Reilly, to take one random example?