ACLU and AFL-CIO Blast Ashcroft

December 14, 2001

In a blatant attempt to stifle growing criticism of the efforts of the Bush administration
to amend the Constitution and write new laws by executive fiat, Attorney General
John Ashcroft equated political dissent with treason during a belated appearance
before the Senate Judiciary Committee Dec. 6.

In his testimony Ashcroft refused to answer some questions, evaded others and
accused those who have raised “phantom concerns about lost liberty”
of helping the enemy. “Your tactics only aid terrorists,” he said
in an aggressive defense of the administration’s attacks on the Bill of

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was quick to respond to Ashcroft’s
arrogance with a statement calling on him to learn from the history of American

“Free and robust debate is one of the main engines of social and political
justice,” Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington office, said.

“We forcefully disagree with [Ashcroft] that domestic debate about the
government response [to Sept. 11] harms any investigation. We believe debate
only strengthens our government in this time of national crisis.”

Murphy criticized steps by the administration to hold secretive military tribunals,
to allow the government to eavesdrop on attorney-client conversations and to
interrogate and detain Arab Americans and Muslims. She said Ashcroft should
welcome a free and robust debate about the legality of his positions.

“Critical discussion of government policy is the strongest shield against
government excess,” she added.

Judith Resnik is one of the 300 law professors from around the country who
sent a letter Dec. 5 to Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee,
in which they expressed their concern about Bush’s military tribunal order.

The letter said the untested institutions contemplated in the order are “deficient,
unnecessary and unwise” and posed serious constitutional questions. Pointing
to the fact that the Constitution provides that Congress, not the president,
has the power to “define and punish … offenses against the law of nations,”
the letter charges that Bush has usurped that power and given it to the Secretary
of Defense without Congressional approval.

The authors add that the order “does not comport” with either constitutional
or international standards and is a clear violation of several international
treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

The letter also clarified the establishment of military tribunals during World
War II. “While the Supreme Court allowed President Roosevelt’s use
of military commissions during World War II, Congress had expressly granted
him the power to create such commissions.”

The letter concluded with a warning that to abandon existing legal institutions
in favor of a “constitutionally questionable endeavor” is misguided.
“Our democracy is at its most resolute when we meet crises with our bedrock
ideals intact and unyielding.”

Jon Hiatt, AFL-CIO general counsel, said “loyal dissent” is not unpatriotic.
“There is no inconsistency in our support of the war against terrorism
and a belief that it is critical to preserve constitutional liberties. To ignore
this would be a tragic mistake,” he said.

A resolution adopted by the recent AFL-CIO convention was clear on the federation’s
commitment to defense of civil liberties. After stating its support of the government’s
military campaign, the resolution said, “there is another front in America’s
struggle to protect and extend freedom and security at home. And here our love
of liberty and of country compels us to speak forcefully in opposition to a
range of measures the administration has taken … that threaten civil liberties
and breach constitutional rights.”

The resolution criticized the USA Patriot Act and sharply criticized the Bush
administration for launching a series of additional initiatives by executive
order without consulting with Congress or prior public notice and discussion.
“Each of these initiatives is disturbing in itself;” the statement
said, “collectively, they emit the air of authoritarianism.”

In its criticism of Bush’s order establishing military tribunals, the
AFL-CIO said such institutions betrayed a “lack of faith” in the nation’s
criminal justice system, which, it said, had “ably and constitutionally
served as the venue for trials of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, Timothy
McVeigh and Manuel Noriega.”

The resolution put the 13-million-member labor organization on record against
relaxing restrictions that prevent FBI surveillance of political and religious
organizations that could “eventually sweep in unions and citizen organizations
and threaten independent political and social activism.”

The statement concluded by calling upon the administration to “reconsider
and relinquish hastily adopted policies that debase our constitutional traditions.”


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