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Editorial: Ashcroft's cheap shot / Critics of security measures aren't disloyal

Sunday, December 09, 2001

The Bush administration's post-Sept 11 security proposals have caused the knees of both liberals and conservatives to jerk. Some liberals reject any new surveillance of potential terrorists as an assault on the Bill of Rights. For some conservatives no crackdown justified by Sept. 11 can go too far.

The challenge for thoughtful people is to make distinctions. Such scrutiny from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle has led the administration to refine and even reverse some of its original proposals for detention of aliens and expanded electronic surveillance.

Unfortunately, Attorney General John Ashcroft seems to think that there can't be constructive criticism of the administration's proposals. Testifying before a Senate committee Thursday, the attorney general charged that some critics of his anti-terrorism policies -- not all of them liberals, by the way -- were providing "ammunition to America's enemies."

It was an uncomfortable, if unintended, echo of complaints by some Red-baiting politicians in the 1950s that critics of particular policies were giving "aid and comfort to the enemy." Those who question the Bush administration's plans for military courts to try terrorists -- possibly in secret -- may be wrong, but they aren't disloyal or dupes of Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Ashcroft discovered on Thursday that cheap shots can fly in both directions. The Bush administration has declined to check the names of post-Sept. 11 detainees against gun-purchase records. That led Sen. Charles Schumer of New York to offer this scolding to the attorney general: "You're looking for new tools in every direction . . . but when it comes to the area of even illegal immigrants getting guns, and finding out if they did, this administration becomes as weak as a wet noodle."

Mr. Ashcroft replied that he was acting out of a concern for proper legal procedures; he should attribute the same honorable motives to his critics.

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