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 Rights.

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 dissent.

“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.”


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries