The train pulls into the station as the band strikes up John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." The crowd breaks into cheers and waves political placards. A depot sign declares this "Pleasantville, USA."
A tall figure steps to the caboose's back railing, and four muscular guards in dark suits and darker sunglasses, replete with earplugs and bulges under their suit jackets, step away to allow the featured speaker to stand majestically before the people. His arms rise benevolently, both to quiet the masses and to bask in their collective adulation. He begins with the requisite, "my fellow Americans, I need your ..."
Wait a minute. That's no presidential candidate asking the crowd at a train station in America's heartland for their votes. That's ... the attorney general. On leave from running the Justice Department and fighting for truth, justice and the American way, he's traveling the country hawking, not for votes, but to let the people know how safe he's made them. To thank them for giving him unprecedented power to pry, surveil, search, seize, incarcerate and convict. And to admonish that they must give the government even more power so that it will continue to protect us against terrorists of all stripes and permutations.
Why is Attorney General John Ashcroft, the self-proclaimed "top cop," leaving the temples of power during the dog days of August to crisscross the country to justify actions already taken, and to demand even more power? Why does the administration feel it necessary to thus defend its actions?
The simple truth is that the administration is feeling the heat. To fend off growing pressure in Congress to limit federal power, and to lay the groundwork for seeking yet more power, the unusual decision was made to send the AG on the road. On his whistle-stop tour (actually by bus), Ashcroft engaged in a series of political speeches, in carefully orchestrated settings, to try to quell criticism of the department's heavy-handed tactics against terrorism.
For Americans who believe that the balance between liberty and security, between privacy and government power, has shifted in the government's favor, the fact that the administration recognized it must respond to its critics is a good sign. But the tack taken by the administration -- spreading more fear and exaggerating the benefits of increased powers -- is troublesome. The administration still refuses to deal in a constructive way with those who dare question whether the country has gone overboard in sacrificing privacy and other civil liberties.
The perfect example is a measure passed a few weeks ago by the House of Representatives (not yet by the Senate). The measure would cut off funds for law enforcement agencies to conduct so-called "sneak and peek" searches. In such searches, federal agents can go into a home or a business and seize evidence without telling the owner they were ever there. Prior law required that agents announce themselves and leave an inventory of what they took and when they finished. In this way, you would at least know they were there, and could challenge their actions in court.
Sneak-and-peek power had long been available to the feds, so long as they showed a federal judge beforehand that it was needed for national security or an emergency. Interestingly, the PATRIOT Act, which was signed into law soon after the 9-11 terrorist acts, gave the government such power in all criminal cases -- not just those involving allegations of terrorism.
As a former U.S. attorney, I know that in virtually every instance in which the government previously sought authority to conduct such a notice-less search, the judge granted the request. Not satisfied, the Justice Department lobbied hard for the power to conduct such searches routinely in criminal investigations. The House measure to restrict sneak-and-peek is but one example of the reaction by Americans and their representatives in Washington against efforts to trim our precious liberties.
The vote caught Ashcroft by surprise. Quickly, however, his spin machinery rolled into high gear, cranking out news releases blasting the House vote. The administration declared that any move to limit its sneak-and-peek power would essentially gut the war against terrorism and would lead directly to loss of lives. It is precisely this exaggerated, fear-inducing attitude that has given rise to much of the skepticism.
Rather than enter into a dialogue with the people, Congress, and such private organizations as the American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union, the Justice Department has hunkered down, called its critics misguided and requested more power.
In recent speeches, Ashcroft claimed credit for the lack of successful post-9-11 attacks on U.S. soil (our soldiers overseas might be surprised to learn of the irrelevance of their efforts). He has stated that the only reason there have been no such attacks is because of the extraordinary law enforcement powers granted him. Among them: the power to conduct notice-less searches, read e-mails without court orders, surveil law-abiding citizens, hold defendants incommunicado indefinitely and refuse them access to witnesses or lawyers.
That the attorney general spends his time and prestige traveling the heartland to sow fear and to endeavor to limit public discourse over the most basic of our freedoms provides the surest reason yet why We the People must keep up the pressure and not back down.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr is a National Rifle Association board member and ad consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union.