Jewish World Review Nov. 26, 2001 / 11 Kislev, 5762

Jules Witcover

Jules Witcover
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Consumer Reports

Ashcroft still under fire -- ATTORNEY GENERAL John Ashcroft found himself in a somewhat ironic situation the other day when he presided over the naming of the Justice Department building in honor of one of his predecessors in the job with whom he has little in common - the late Robert F. Kennedy.

Ashcroft likes to compare his approach toward the war on terrorism with Kennedy's own war against Mafia kingpins and labor tough guys like Jimmy Hoffa, saying he intends to get terrorist suspects off the streets the way he says Kennedy dealt with the hoods, by catching them in any minor violation of law.

But that's where the comparison ends. Ashcroft's record as a state attorney general, Missouri governor and senator in the realm of civil rights - where Robert Kennedy made a much more lasting contribution to American life than as a crime-fighter - obliged him to stand on his head, disavowing his past, during contentious Senate confirmation hearings last winter.

The large Kennedy clan, pleased at the dedication of the building and willing to swallow the temporary discomfort of Ashcroft trying to don the mantle of their lost kin even temporarily, sat and politely applauded the incumbent attorney general's remarks of praise. As one of them said later, "The building will be there long after he will."

But Ashcroft played host to the event at a time he is under increasing fire for his actions as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. His latest decision to eavesdrop on certain conversations between suspected terrorists or associates detained and uncharged with any crime has many legal scholars declaring the order to be unconstitutionally in violation of client-attorney privilege.

One of Kennedy's daughters, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, seemed to allude to the matter at another event on the same day as the building dedication, in turning to her own daughter and saying, "Cara, if anyone tries to tell you this is the type of justice your grandpa would embrace, don't you believe it."

Others recall, however, that Kennedy as attorney general did authorize FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on national security grounds when Hoover suspected the civil rights leader of associations with Communists during the Red Scare days. But Kennedy redeemed himself in the eyes of civil rights advocates with his record against racial discrimination.

There are other raps against Ashcroft and his attitude toward civil liberties. His recent ruling against the so-called assisted suicide law in Oregon has inspired a large ad in the New York Times by The Hemlock Society, self-described as "the nation's oldest and largest organization advocating death with dignity."

The ad says: "Intolerance comes in many forms. Attorney General John Ashcroft just arbitrarily decreed that terminally ill Americans cannot choose physician aide (sic) in dying. If his action stands, no hopelessly ill American in any state will be able to get physician help for a dignified death. This is an unwarranted and cruel intrusion into the private lives and personal choices of all Americans."

In another Oregon case, Portland's acting chief of police, Andrew Kirkland, has decided to buck Ashcroft by announcing he will not help the FBI question 200 Middle Eastern immigrants as part of the war on terrorism. The acting chief has invoked a state law that he says prohibits such interrogation of immigrants not suspected of having committed a crime.

This same matter of ethnic or racial profiling is being opposed in legislation co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, a liberal who nevertheless provided the deciding vote that moved Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general to the Senate floor last winter.

President Bush himself has gone out of his way to urge Americans not to engage in racial or ethnic profiling and has taken commendable action to shield Muslims from harassment by hosting a large group of Islamic leaders at the White House and visiting a major Islamic mosque. But civil libertarians are plainly concerned that he has a loose cannon running the Justice Department, which has such a critical role to play in the war on terrorism, especially on the home front.

Comment on JWR contributor Jules Witcover's column by clicking here.

11/21/01: Normalcy vs. security at the White House
11/12/01: Bush's latest pep talk
11/07/01: The blame game on airport security
11/05/01: Bellwether gubernatorial elections?
11/02/01: Feingold's complaint
10/31/01: Putting the cart before the horse?
10/29/01: Show business on economic stimulus
10/26/01: No political business as usual
10/24/01: Senatorial bravado
10/22/01: Split decision on gun rights
10/16/01: New York mayor's race: What kind of experience?
10/15/01: New York: Making a comeback
10/11/01: Giuliani: Fly in the election ointment
10/08/01: One or two New Yorks?
10/05/01: Providing your own security
10/01/01: Getting back to 'normal'
09/28/01: Muzzling the Voice Of America
09/26/01: Bush's transformation
09/24/01: Using a tragedy for a federal bailout
09/21/01: A view of tragedy at home from abroad
09/14/01: Script for AlGore's coming-out party
08/31/01: Scandal and privacy in politics
08/24/01: On replacing Helms
08/22/01: Politics takes a summer holiday
08/15/01: The resurfacing of AlGore
08/13/01: You can go home again
08/10/01: Governors' Conference drought
08/08/01: Governors defend their turf
08/06/01: New Bush muscle with congress
08/03/01: America's benign neglect
07/30/01: Where is the fear factor?
07/26/01: Dubya, Nancy Reagan and the Pope
07/23/01: Bush's congressional dilemma
07/19/01: Katharine Graham, giant
07/11/01: Finessing election reform
07/09/01: Listening to, and watching, Ashcroft
07/06/01: New comedian in the House (of Representatives)
06/27/01: Spinning Campaign Finance Reform's latest 'headway'
06/25/01: When Dubya says 'the check is in the mail,' you can believe him
06/22/01: The push on patients' rights
06/20/01: If you can't trust historians, how can you trust history?
06/18/01: World Refugee Day
06/13/01: Remembering 'Hubert'
06/11/01: Ventura faces government shutdown
06/06/01: McCain doth protest too much
06/04/01: Memo to the Bush daughters
05/30/01: Missing in action: Democratic outrage
05/30/01: Honoring World War II vets
05/23/01: Lauding the Nixon pardon
05/21/01: Messin' with McCain
05/18/01: A great movie plot
05/16/01: The level of public sensibility these days
05/14/01: "I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States"

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