It's no longer just politically incorrect to criticize George W. Bush or anyone in his administration these days -- now it's treason.
John Ashcroft, testifying before the Senate on Thursday, declared that those who challenge his wisdom "only aid terrorists" and will "give ammunition to America's enemies." Tough words. They make you wonder what the guy who's charged with helping us whip Al Qaeda is afraid of. The only prominent traitors in sight are the usual civil- liberties watchdogs and a milque- toast senator or two barely known beyond the Beltway and their own constituencies. Polls find the public squarely on the attorney general's side, and even the few pundits who knock him are ridiculed by their journalistic colleagues as hysterics so busy fussing about civil liberties that they forget "there's a war going on."
Well, with the smell of victory over the Taliban crowding out the scent of mass murder from the World Trade Center, the Ashcroft defenders have half a point: some people are indeed forgetting that a war is still going on. But it is not those questioning the administration who are slipping into this amnesia so much as those who rubber stamp its every whim. While I wouldn't dare call it treason, it hardly serves the country to look the other way when the Ashcroft-Ridge-Thompson-Mineta team proves as inept at home as the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell-Rice team has proved adept abroad. In the Afghan aftermath, the home front is just as likely to be the next theater of war as Somalia or Iraq. Giving a free pass to Mr. Ashcroft and the other slackers in the Bush administration isn't patriotism -- it's complacency, which sometimes comes with a stiff price.
Just how deep that complacency runs could be seen on Monday, when Tom Ridge issued the administration's third urgent announcement to date of a heightened terror alert. Why even bother? His vague doomsday warning didn't lead every newscast and didn't rouse the public or even law enforcement. On ABC, John Miller reported that the three F.B.I. field offices he canvassed had neither been advised of the threat nor "told to batten down the hatches any more than they were." What's that about? Under Mr. Ashcroft's dictum, asking such follow-up questions is aiding and abetting the enemy. In any event, no one did. Surely it's also treason to indulge in blunt talk about airline security. Norman Mineta, the transportation secretary, waited only one week after President Bush signed the security bill to abandon all hope of meeting its 60-day deadline for screening checked baggage for explosives. Nor did he call for any stopgap measures to help in the meantime (like enlisting the cosmetically deployed airport national guardsmen to do at least some such screening). Give Mr. Mineta credit for candor, but he might as well have just painted a big target on the back of the nation's commercial airline system as we segue from Ramadan into Christmas. Of course it would be un-American to say so.
I asked Allan Gerson, the George Washington University professor who co-wrote the new and definitive book on Pan Am Flight 103, "The Price of Terror," if our approach to airline security is still preposterous all these weeks after Sept. 11. His answer: "It's preposterous that we're stupid enough to fly. It's sick." On the vast majority of America's domestic flights, he noted, a suitcase containing a bomb (perhaps a bomb planted in an innocent passenger's bag while it lingered at a hotel's bell desk) can be checked curbside with little fear of detection as long as you give the correct answer to the skycap's two security questions while handing over a tip. Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, adds that even when the new law goes into effect (or is purported to go into effect), it polices only the country's airlines, not the 240,000 private, charter and corporate planes that terrorists can turn into missiles.
As for the screening of passengers, Mr. Mineta proudly said in answer to a question from Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes" last Sunday that he wanted to give the same level of scrutiny to a 70-year-old white woman from Vero Beach as he would to a young Muslim man from Jersey City. (And based on my own air security experiences, he's getting what he wants.) To use Mr. Gerson's language, it's sick that amid a Justice Department crackdown that indiscriminately (and often pointlessly) rounds up young men for questioning on the basis of their ethnicity, the administration is not practicing such profiling at the venue where the strongest case can be made for it -- the airports where 19 hijackers jump-started their crime. Such inconsistency of law enforcement is beyond the Keystone Kops -- it's absurdity worthy of the Marx Brothers. That would make our attorney general the bumbling Chico of the outfit. But don't count me among those who quake that Mr. Ashcroft is shredding the Constitution. He does respect some rights, after all, like that of illegal immigrants and terrorists to buy guns in the U.S. without fear of government intrusion. And he just doesn't seem clever enough to undo the Bill of Rights, even with the president's backing. You have to have more command of the law than he does to subvert it. Mr. Ashcroft said that he wouldn't release the names of the hundreds of people he's detained since Sept. 11 because the law forbade it, even though, as his own deputy later pointed out, the detainees have the right to publicize their names on their own through their family or counsel. His other excuse for keeping the names secret was to prevent Al Qaeda from learning if any of its operatives might be locked up, as if our enemy were not cunning enough to figure out on its own which members he might have apprehended (if any). Then, when he couldn't take the heat, he released some of the names anyway. Mr. Ashcroft doesn't even have the courage of his own wrong convictions.
What's more chilling than the potential threats to civil liberties posed by the emergency powers he is grabbing on behalf of the president are the immediate practical threats these quick-fix legal schemes pose to the war effort. The mere prospect of military tribunals is already hobbling our battle against Al Qaeda. Spain, which, unlike Mr. Ashcroft, has actually charged men said to have helped plan the Sept. 11 attacks, is balking at extraditing them to the U.S. if a military trial is in store. Floyd Abrams, the constitutional lawyer, says this could have a "multiplying effect" as other European Union countries with similarly valuable Al Qaeda quarry, like Germany and Britain, follow Spain's example, whether because of their aversion to military tribunals or to capital punishment.
While we bog down in negotiating these roadblocks, our lack of easy access to crucial suspects could slow our intelligence gathering. Meanwhile, says Mr. Abrams, "the practical effect could well be that we may not be able to try the people we want to try the most, and the countries that do try them could lose the case."
Mr. Ashcroft's detentions and roundups may backfire as well. Eight former F.B.I. officials, including a former director, William Webster, went on the record to The Washington Post to criticize the blanket arrests -- not because they compromise the Bill of Rights but because they defy law-enforcement common sense. By nabbing possible terrorists prematurely, the government loses the ability to track them as they implicate the rest of their cells. The F.B.I. veterans also scoffed at the attorney general's attempted 5,000 interviews of Middle Eastern men. Kenneth Walton, who established the bureau's first Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, said: "It's the Perry Mason school of law enforcement, where you get them in there and they confess. . . . It is ridiculous." Already early reports tell us that most of the invited interviewees aren't turning up anyway, and that those who do need only reply by rote to yes or no questions from a four-page script. The attorney general keeps boasting that he is winning the war on terrorism at home and keeping us safe. But he provides no evidence to support his claim, even as there's much evidence that he's antagonizing his own troops (the F.B.I., local police departments) and wasting their finite time and resources on wild goose chases that have pumped up arrest numbers without yielding many (or any) terrorists.
If questioning our leaders' competence at a time of war is treason, take me to the nearest military tribunal. But the one thing we learned on that Tuesday morning, I had thought, is that it's better to raise these questions today than the morning after.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company