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 tall figure steps to the caboose's back railing and four muscular guards in dark suits and darker sunglasses step away to allow him to stand majestically before the people. He begins with the requisite "My fellow Americans, I need your ..."
Wait a minute. That's no presidential candidate asking a crowd for their votes. That's the attorney general! John Ashcroft is traveling the country 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. Why is Ashcroft criss-crossing the country to justify actions already taken and to demand even more power?
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 attorney general on the road. On his whistle-stop tour, 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.
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. The measure would cut off funds for law enforcement agencies to conduct so-called sneak-and-peek searches, wherein 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.
Sneak-and-peek power has long been available to the feds if they showed a federal judge beforehand that it was needed for national security or an emergency. Additionally, the Patriot Act, signed into law soon after 9/11, gave the government such power in all criminal cases -- not just those involving allegations of terrorism.
The House measure to restrict sneak-and-peek 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.
Ashcroft has stated that the only reason there have been no further 9/11-style 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 Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Barr writes for Atlanta's newsweekly, Creative Loafing, where this article first appeared.