Ashcroft on tour, and unplugged

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Like an aging rock star promoting a new album, John Ashcroft hit the road for a summer tour last week. Armed with a repertoire that includes such timeless hits as "We Are Safer" and "Our Liberties Are More Secure" the attorney general set out on a four-week 18-city jaunt that will take him from the heartland to the East Coast.

That may not exactly be a Bruce Springsteen pace, but it's not bad for someone who isn't running for office or even a member of the Rolling Stones. Mr. Ashcroft's motivation rather is the defense and furthering of the Patriot Act. In other words, it's the kind of tour only a wonk could love, but even if you've never followed Ashcroft - even his early stuff before he signed with a major label - this is a tour that should get your attention. The stakes are high.

Passed by large majorities in the House and Senate in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the legislation gave new sweeping powers to law-enforcement officials in the pursuit of possible terrorists.

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It allows the government to conduct "sneak and peek" searches, in which agents can look through people's homes without telling them before or after the search, and gives agents the power to seize library, medical, and financial records without telling the citizen in question and without showing probable cause.

In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks, these measures seemed extreme but necessary to many in Congress. But as time has gone by, the mood has changed on the Hill. Already the House of Representatives, led by a Republican, has voted to withdraw funding for the parts of the law pertaining to "sneak and peek." The Senate is taking up some provisions as well, and 154 cities, towns, and counties have passed resolutions opposing the act.

Sensing the tone has changed, Ashcroft has decided to take his message straight to the people - to bring the good news about what the Patriot Act has accomplished and pave the way for Patriot Act II that would expand on the powers of the first. He points out that there has not been a successful attack on American soil since Patriot I was passed and that that is because the law "closes gaping holes in our ability to investigate terrorists."

One proposed sequel to the law, the Victory Act, would, among other things, treat drug possession as a "terrorist offense" and treat drug dealers as "narcoterrorist kingpins."

At first glance all of this fits with Ashcroft's promise immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks to treat terrorists the way the Kennedy administration treated mobsters: Arrest them for "spitting on the sidewalk" if that's how they could get them.

Those are fine words and a fine goal, but they simply don't match the way Ashcroft and his Justice Department are prosecuting the war on terror. Arresting people for spitting on the sidewalk means following a known enemy closely and waiting for him to slip up. Ashcroft's goal thus far seems completely different.

He is intent on broadening the sidewalk the terrorists are walking on; redefining its borders so that more and more people can be monitored for spitting. The proposed "Victory Act" is case in point. Drug use and drug selling are illegal and should be punishable, but even if a small sliver of drug money goes to terrorists, does that mean all drug offenses should have the potential to be made into terrorist offenses?

There are, after all, a lot of illegal activities that could somehow be used to raise money for terrorists - corporate fraud, ticket scalping, bootlegging CDs. What's to prevent these offenses from being added to the list of terrorist acts by well-meaning or completely cynical politicians?

That's what a lot of public interest groups, from the ACLU to the NRA, are wondering.

There is a larger issue behind the Patriot Act debate though: Is it the right approach? When the law was passed six weeks after Sept. 11, the country was wondering how it could have been caught so off guard. The attacks came like a bolt from the blue. And in that environment the passing of the Patriot Act is understandable - paranoid perhaps, but understandable.

But we've learned a lot since then. There were warning signs and they were missed. There were miscommunications and mistakes - the CIA had information about hijackers that it didn't share with the FBI, "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui sat in a prison cell.

All of which seems to indicate that while some legal changes may be necessary, our real problem is watching bad guys on the sidewalk, not stretching its boundaries.

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