Who was in charge of the FBI as the terrorist "chatter" grew louder and louder? In May 2001, Louis Freeh resigned as FBI director effective in June. Robert Mueller III wasn't installed until the first week of September. Since the Department of Justice oversees the bureau, Attorney General John Ashcroft became the acting head of the FBI.
What was Ashcroft doing during those crucial weeks leading up to 9/11? Well, he prevented Oregon doctors from offering assisted suicide. He worked to evict families from public housing if anyone in their household was arrested for using drugs. And he went after California doctors for administering marijuana as a pain remedy to cancer patients.
During his unsuccessful 2000 Senate run against the deceased Democrat Carnahan, the National Rifle Association was one of Ashcroft's biggest supporters. In appreciation for their support, Ashcroft barred the FBI from checking whether or not any of the 1,200 [no one knows how many?] detainees had purchased guns. Bypassing the DOJ, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found out that some of the detainees had bought 34 guns that were later seized in crimes. Then, on May 6th, Ashcroft reversed decades of gun legislation when he argued that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual's right to own and use guns. In an ironic twist in the War on Terror, Ashcroft may have given the American Taliban John Walker Lindh's lawyers some leverage in court, as they argue to dismiss a firearms charge against him.
Meanwhile, prior to Freeh's departure, Ashcroft refused Freeh's repeated requests for increased counter-terrorism funding or assignment of new counter-terrorist agents. More recently, the ultra-conservative Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch alleged that FBI agent Robert Wright was prevented from continuing his investigation into terrorist financing in part while Ashcroft has been Attorney General.
In his Department of Defense 2001 budget, Ashcroft asked for increased spending for 68 programs, none of them directly linked to counter-terrorism. He also proposed to slash $65 million from a program that gave state and local authorities monies to purchase radios, decontamination clothing and to fund other counter-terror preparedness measures. In a memo to his department heads, Ashcroft reportedly listed his priorities and terrorism wasn't mentioned.
As warnings from the outgoing Clinton administration, the CIA, FBI, Jordan, Egypt, Russia, Israel, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, the Philippines and others continued to be ignored by the Bush administration, at least one warning was heeded. In July 2001, Ashcroft stopped flying on commercial airliners after the FBI issued him a personal "threat assessment."
If flying on commercial airliners was unsafe for Ashcroft, wouldn't it be unsafe for everyone else? Why didn't Ashcroft warn the FAA, the airlines, or heighten security? When we needed him most, what was he doing? Protecting his own Ash-croft?
Now, in his efforts to "correct" FBI failures and in the interests of "national security," Ashcroft is undoing the constitution through executive fiat. The USA Patriot Act was passed in haste because committee meetings and public hearings weren't held, Congressional efforts to alter portions of the bill were defeated, the usual practice of holding a joint conference of both Houses wasn't honored, and insufficient copies of the bill were made available. In fact, only two copies of the USA Patriot Act were given to the Democrats. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank said, "This was the least democratic process for debating questions fundamental to democracy I have ever seen. A bill drafted by a handful of people in secret, subject to no committee process, comes before us immune from amendment." But Ashcroft knows how to silence his critics—he simply accuses them of being unpatriotic and "aiding terrorists."
As the man in charge of "protecting" our rights, Ashcroft has given the Executive branch vast new powers to wield unchecked by the courts or Congress. He has enabled the FBI to spy on us, Muslims and non-Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs. Without any evidence of criminal activity, the FBI can watch us as we use our computers, talk on the phone, attend churches, synagogues, temples or mosques, and as we exercise our right to dissent. The FBI can search our homes without our knowledge, and they can seize our assets. Legal residents and immigrants can be rounded up and held for an unspecified period of time at an undisclosed place, or even deported, without being charged with a crime and without habeas corpus. Those believed to be guilty of terrorism may face a secret military tribunal and possible execution.
Think this can't happen to you? Think again. The ACLU says that the USA Patriot Act may apply to any individual, citizen or non-citizen, that the President has reason to believe is a terrorist, or who may be involved in acts of terrorism, or who may be believed to harbor a terrorist or associate with a terrorist. Ashcroft has tried to justify the bill on the grounds that it only applies to non-citizens. However, the Supreme Court stipulated that the "Due Process Clause" applies to all persons within the borders of the United States. Oh, and don't count on the USA Patriot Act going quietly into the sunset in four years either. President Bush has said that the War Against Terrorism won't end in our lifetimes, and most patriotic members of Congress want to be re-elected.
While the intrusions into our civil liberties continue to worsen day by day, are we any safer? The Bush administration, the FBI, the CIA, the DOJ, and the INS all failed us in part because of an entrenched bureaucratic mindset that discourages inter-agency communication and cooperation. The FBI failed in part because its more comfortable conducting criminal investigations of mobster activities, rather than doing the painstaking research and analysis needed to capture terrorists. The administration failed because many, many warnings were ignored, the wrong priorities were set, and the wrong people were put in charge. The system does need to be fixed. But placing limits on our rights won't protect us from terrorism. What it will do is give the Bush administration and Ashcroft unprecedented power and deflect attention away from the real problems, which are still not being adequately addressed. –Leslie Brenner
Leslie Brenner lives in
Brooklyn, New York.