Ashcroft finally faces Hill critics

Senate set to grill US attorney general Thursday about erosion of liberties. at hearings tomorrow.

As he sits down before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow, Attorney General John Ashcroft can expect a grilling not seen since his Senate confirmation hearing. The line of questioning will likely boil down to one issue: whether he and the Bush administration have been overly authoritarian in prosecuting the war on terrorism and protecting the public.

The hearing hints at a shift in the political landscape in Washington. A growing willingness to criticize the antiterrorism tactics of President Bush's team is displacing the near-total support the administration has enjoyed up to now.

Indeed, tomorrow's proceedings are the third hearing in three days dealing with the Justice Department's actions since the terrorist attacks.

They come at a time when polls show a significant drop in the public fears about terrorism. This shift may diminish the desire for lock-step political unity - and embolden critics to question members of Bush's team.

As fear abates, "There's a complacency factor that's settling in," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute here.

That means partisanship is resurrecting itself on Capitol Hill. Furthermore, Ashcroft himself, "has become the clear face of hard-core conservatism" for some Democrats, "and that has fueled opposition to him on civil liberties and other issues," says Mr. Wittmann.

The debate centers on two issues: whether the tactics used by the Justice Department are too draconian - and whether Ashcroft's team has done too little consulting with Congress.

The attorney general has faced mounting criticism over several tactics: asking Arab-American men to submit to voluntary interviews, listening to conversations between terrorism suspects and their lawyers, and not revealing information about some 1,000 people detained since Sept. 11.

In Detroit on Sunday, Ashcroft told community leaders they could observe the questioning of the young Arab men - perhaps an attempt to tamp down some criticism.

On congressional consultations, some observers say senators - including Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont - are whining about not being in the law-enforcement loop.

Others counter that an important constitutional issue is at stake. "This isn't just about Congress complaining: It's about the Constitution, which sets up three branches of government," says Neal Katyal, a law professor at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Having Congress play its role as a check on the executive branch is crucial, he says.

For instance, the military tribunals allow the executive branch to carry out functions usually reserved for the other branches: making the law (by designing rules for the tribunals) and carrying out the law (by using judges who are under the president).

He notes that when President Franklin Roosevelt imposed stiff civil-liberties restrictions - such as interning Japanese Americans - the declaration of war from Congress backed up his actions. "Compared to earlier presidents, this administration has taken a far more unilateralist course of action," says Professor Katyal.

Bush supporters counter that swift executive action is required in a time of war. And the public largely agrees. A recent Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans think the administration's approach to civil liberties is "about right."

Still, the lessening of public concern about a new terrorist attack could eventually lead to a shift in public attitudes about how heavy-handed the government should be. Gallup reports that 35 percent of Americans are worried that they or someone in their family will be a victim of terrorism. That's down from 59 percent in the wake of the October anthrax attacks - and it roughly matches pre-Sept. 11 levels.

The new warning Monday by homeland security chief Tom Ridge - as well as fresh speculation that Al Qaeda has primitive nuclear weapons - may cause a spike in fear and mute the partisan tone at Ashcroft's hearing.

But recently on Capitol Hill lawmakers who have been only quietly criticizing the administration have grown bolder. Ashcroft's appearance tomorrow follows two Senate hearings Tuesday - one that looked into the Justice Department's detentions and another on military tribunals. "The attorney general is going to face questions on detainment and on tribunals," one Hill staffer says. "But I wouldn't say the issue for the committee now is that DOJ is overreaching ... but that the administration is acting unilaterally."

At a hearing last week, Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff faced some spirited questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee dealing essentially with that point. And while Democrats took more shots, the committee's Republicans also made their unhappiness known - particularly Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who cut Chertoff short several times.

As the administration receives largely high marks for its prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, it is little surprise that Ashcroft would be the first member of the Bush team to face heat at home. Since his nomination for the attorney general's job, the former Missouri Senator has been the subject of much criticism.

Critics charged he did not take a strong enough stand against racial profiling, and liberal interest groups organized a strong campaign against him.

The question now is whether the criticism arising around Ashcroft stays contained or spreads to other areas of the administration's war effort.

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