Ashcroft's Agenda

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Attorney General John Ashcroft testifies on Capitol Hill

As the House and Senate scramble to grant the Bush administration new power to identify and investigate potential terrorists, the much anticipated first signs of post-attack dissent are surfacing — but not between the two parties most of us expected.

In the days following the terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked Congress to approve sweeping legislation granting the government unprecedented access to suspectsí phone and electronic communications. Ashcroft has also appealed for the right to detain foreign nationals for unspecified periods of time without filing charges — essentially a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. But Ashcroft isnít going to get exactly what he wants, thanks to a peculiar coalition of left-leaning civil libertarians and right-leaning libertarians — united by their fear of government intrusion.

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After a marathon session of debate and compromise, both House and Senate leaders appear prepared to grant Ashcroft a number of his requests, including extended wiretapping capabilities and a longer detention time (seven days up from the existing two day limit). Itís not exactly what he was looking for, and the AG is reportedly disappointed by the results of the negotiations. And he wonít be able to do much to address his grievances; short of advising the President to veto the legislation (a move that strikes most as deeply unadvisable). In the end, Ashcroft will have to live with what Congress gives him.

Who would have expected this alliance to keep the Justice Departmentís law-and-order requests at armsí length? Anyone who studied the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"We find ourselves in a situation much like we did after the Oklahoma City attack," says William Banks, professor of law at Syracuse University. "The mood, then as now, brings together the traditional right and traditional left in an attempt to slow or even derail some of the surveillance proposals."

While no one can predict the precise shape of the final legislation, Banks believes there are a few items assured of easy passage — and others doomed to the cutting room floor. "I think the proposals include some that should have been brought forward before this series of attacks," says Banks, "including those dealing with advances in technology and surveillance. And then there are some that should never be brought up here in the United States, including the idea of indefinite detention."

The Bush administration will, of course, get its new legislation, possibly by the end of the week. But, says Banks, the debate over specifics should not be dismissed. "Itís safe to say Ashcroft will get an anti-terrorism package — we just donít know what the details will look like in the end. And in this situation, of course, the details are incredibly important."