- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

Watching an array of former attorneys general on C-Span, I heard a staunch defense of the current, controversial holder of that office, John Ashcroft. His champion was Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s attorney general. No American with nothing to hide, said Mr. Meese, need be worried about the USA Patriot Act. But a growing number of Mr. Meese’s fellow conservatives disagree.

Years ago, Mr. Meese and I became friendly when we were pitted against one another — debating the state of civil liberties — on the college lecture circuit. I came to respect his honesty and his quick sense of humor. But he and I are still on opposite sides on how to protect what we’re fighting for against the terrorists: Our liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

What the media has not sufficiently remarked on is the extent to which a growing number of leading conservatives and their organizations have joined with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to demand that Congress reinvigorate the separation of powers — including requiring the administration to tell all of us specifically how it is implementing the sweeping powers of electronic and other forms of surveillance it possesses under the Patriot Act and subsequent executive orders.

To highlight this reinvigoration, the ACLU organized an April 10 public meeting in Washington, titled “A Discussion with Conservatives: State of Civil Liberties Post-9/11.” Among those present were: David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a board member of the National Rifle Association; and the vigorously conservative former congressman Bob Barr, who is currently an ACLU consultant.

Also on hand was Lori Waters, executive director of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. As reported in Salon in April, Ms. Waters looked around the room and said that “everyone in this room is a suspect until it’s proven that you’re not.” Like Ms. Waters, many conservatives are deeply concerned that the government has gone too far in jeopardizing our privacy, and through Congress, they helped suspend the Total Information Awareness System that retired Adm. John Poindexter is directing at the Defense Department under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

A leading conservative, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was criticized at this public meeting by his usual allies for having moved to make the USA Patriot Act permanent. This act has a “sunset clause,” which requires Congress to review it in December 2005 to judge its effects on civil liberties. Mr. Hatch has since — at least for the time-being — withdrawn his attempt to cancel the clause.

During the meeting discussing making the Patriot Act’s many incursions into civil liberties permanent, Mr. Norquist said that he “would support legislation that would sunset all legislation passed during a time of war. And I would vote against any legislation somebody felt they had to name ‘Patriot.’ … That name — an acronym for ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism’ — was used to mau-mau people because it looks bad on a 30-second commercial to have voted against it.”

Indeed, there were members of Congress who voted for the hastily passed Patriot Act, because, with elections coming up, they were afraid that if they hadn’t supported Mr. Ashcroft’s bill their opponents would run ads questioning their Americanism.

In the April 15 Dallas Morning News, Mr. Norquist explained why so many influential conservatives have agreed with the ACLU and other civil libertarians, with whom they otherwise would disagree on diverse issues: “I’m not sure, given the Republican control of the House and Senate and the government, that we can count on our left-of-center friends to look out for some of those issues.”

While such congressional Democrats as John Conyers of Michigan, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, and Patrick Leahy of Vermont have been specifically critical of Mr. Ashcroft’s revisions of the Bill of Rights, such leading Democrats as Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and most of the ardent campaigners for the Democratic presidential nomination have largely ignored a question by Ms. Waters of the Eagle Forum, quoted recently in the Salt Lake Tribune: “We’ve lost some civil liberties since September 11, but how far do we take it, and will it really make us safer?”

The same newspaper quoted Republican Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, calling the Patriot Act the “worst act ever passed … stupid, it was what you call ‘emotional voting.’ ” This plainspoken one-time tugboat captain speaks for an increasing number of grassroots Americans across the political spectrum, who are growing impatient with Mr. Ashcroft’s seeming inability to hear them.

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