WASHINGTON — Attorney General John Ashcroft is running a dead heat with A. Mitchell Palmer, attorney general in the Wilson administration, for the distinction of being the worst in that job in the history of the United States.
One of the duties of the attorney general as head of the Justice Department is to protect the Constitution. Both Mr. Ashcroft and Palmer found that the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, got in their way more than it protected anything. It has gotten in Ashcroft's way in his pursuit of terrorists after Sept. 11, especially those who dress differently and practice a different religion. Palmer's crusade was the pursuit of communists, in the aftermath of World War I. He especially went after people with what to him were funny names from Eastern Europe. He tended to equate liberals with communists.
Ashcroft's vehicle is the USA Patriot Act, which Congress, abdicating its own duties of vigilance, passed with a whoop and a holler in the days after Sept. 11. Even the name of this odious legislation is offensive. It implies that the purpose of the act is to promote patriotism and that those not cooperating with it are somehow less patriotic.
The act breezed through the Senate 96 to 1 on Oct. 11, 2001, and the House 337 to 79 the following day. The president signed it Oct. 26.
In January of this year, Ashcroft asked for a broadening and extension of this act. The fact that this request is still not acted on eight months later may indicate an infusion of common sense and stiffening of backbone on Capitol Hill.
The new legislation would make it easier for the government to do what it is already doing under the old legislation and in some cases for longer periods. For example, the FBI can seize the records of your local library and can forbid the library to tell anybody, including you, that it has done so. The FBI cannot go into your home and see what books you have without a court order, but it can go into the library and see what books you have checked out. It can get magazine subscription lists and check what websites you have visited.
The government is already holding hundreds of people in jail incommunicado, some of them American citizens, without benefit of legal counsel. Depriving citizens of their rights seems worse, but in fact citizenship does not matter in most cases. The 14th Amendment provides that these rights cover "any person" - not any citizen.
The Defense Department is leading the charge for what it calls Total Information Awareness, a massive database including DNA. This, in turn, will allow airports to implement the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, which assigns every passenger a color code - green, yellow, or red - that rates the passenger as a security risk in boarding a flight. What this overlooks is that if the security people at Logan Airport in Boston had done their jobs better on Sept. 11, they would have prevented the hijackers from bringing box cutters on board in the first place. This would have saved endless subsequent trouble.
The reason we embarked on the war on terror in the first place, aside from revenge for Sept. 11, was to remove the threat that we thought it posed to our way of life. President Bush has since broadened that purpose to include the more imperialistic goal of spreading democracy. That needs thorough public debate - in Congress, in academia, on editorial pages, and in other public forums throughout the country.
Our prime original purpose of revenge was achieved and more in the devastation of Afghanistan and in driving Osama bin Laden, if he is still alive, into a life of moving from one cave to another.
Removing the threat of terrorism is more complicated. We must ensure that we do not lose our way of life in the process of defending it. Already, public buildings in Washington, the US Capitol, and State Department among others, have been largely closed to the public. "Security" has become a magic word to justify public inconvenience.
The Patriot Act and other Ashcroft tactics have the seeds of the same tactics used by Saddam Hussein. If we succumb to the temptation to use them, we will have yielded to the thing we say we are fighting. We will have lost the war on terror, and the terrorists will have won, no matter that we have blown up two of their countries.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.