Ashcroft, Bovard, the Patriot Act,
January 15, 2004
To bust the winter blahs, Hardyville has at least one fancy civic-betterment “do” every year. One winter, a Genuine Expert came from California and talked about “Weapons for the Generic Catastrophe.” Another time, the mysterious Tom Spooner taught us all how to make and use thermite — and I can tell you that did brighten up our winter more than a bit.
Some folks might wonder how such things qualify as “civic betterment.” But trust me, they definitely make Hardyville a better place than most to live.
This year we got more uppity and la-de-dah. Attorney General John Ashcroft and James Bovard, who wrote Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil, came to Hardyville to debate the Patriot Act.
Now, I know. You probably doubted that when you first heard it. Why would two Famous Washington, DC, Types come to itty-bitty Hardyville — and in the middle of snowy-blowy January yet?
Well, it didn’t take any convincing to get Jim. All we had to do is promise him we had good beer.
Ashcroft was tougher. You know how these Grand Poobahs are. They’re paranoid about letting actual people get within 10 miles of them. So first, Ashcroft’s handlers told us everybody in Hardyville would have to have a background check to prove they weren’t dangerous. We said that wasn’t necessary, because we already know we’re all dangerous. But only to tyrants — and Mr. Ashcroft doesn’t think of himself as a tyrant, does he??? Then they said everybody in the audience would have to go through metal detectors to make sure they weren’t armed. And we said that was downright silly, because we already know we’re all armed. And didn’t Mr. Ashcroft keep insisting he believed in the Second Amendment? So why didn’t he just show up and quit arguing?
Anyway, after Dora-the-Yalie’s father’s third cousin from Georgetown pulled some strings, the whole town jammed into the Hardyville One-Plex to see the show.
We’d covered up all the naked breasts in the theater murals so’s not to give Mr. A the vapors. (Jim said he didn’t mind, as long as we uncovered them afterward so he could look.) In the front row, Louella from the Hardyvillian clutched her notepad, starry-eyed at the chance to be an actual “journalist” from the actual “media” getting quotes from an actual “government source.” (Yeah, they’re like that even in Hardyville, sorry.)
Mrs. Nat was supposed to moderate the thing — being one of only two people in town who could be counted on to be polite to a politician (the other one being Louella). But after shyly choking out introductions, she mumbled something about cookies in the oven and fled, leaving Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Bovard to have at each other.
I gotta give you the picture of these guys. Mr. A looks like the kind of storefront preacher who wears plaid pants and moonlights as a used car salesman. He looks, to tell you the truth, exactly like the kinda guy who’d anoint himself with Crisco. Mr. B also looks churchy, though I gotta say not religious, and definitely for sure not pious. Bald on top and generally scraggly, he looks like the kind of Medieval monk who’d hang around quaffing ale in taverns, instead of praying in the abbey. So you could see, even before they opened their mouths, that these guys weren’t exactly a matched pair.
Sure enough, Ashcroft started off like the preacher-man, gazing kindly down on his benighted flock: “The Founders,” he crooned, “believed debate should enlighten, not just enliven. It should reveal truth, not obscure it. The future of freedom demands that our discourse be based on a solid foundation of facts and a sincere desire for truth.”
No croons for Bovard. Whipping a cheap cigar out of his vest pocket and pointing it at the AG, he hooted, “Mr. Ashcroft, your lofty sentiments are uplifting — until one remembers that you issued an order largely gutting the Freedom of Information Act a month after 9/11. You say you’re all in favor of a ‘solid foundation of facts’ — but you’re opposed to permitting Americans from learning what the feds are up to? This is not quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind!”
When that got a chuckle, Ashcroft smirked at our ignorance (and I tell you, this guy can seriously smirk). He then informed us the Patriot Act was For Our Security: “With the critical new investigative tools provided by the Patriot Act, law enforcement can share information and cooperate better with each other. From prosecutors to intelligence agents, the Act allows law enforcement to ‘connect the dots’ and uncover terrorist plots before they are launched.”
Some conservative members of the audience nodded at that one. But Bovard wasn’t having it. With a glint of heresy in his eye he said, “That’s a nice way of covering up their failure to share information — even within any one agency — that could have prevented the original attacks. The House-Senate Joint Intelligence Committee found pervasive incompetence by the FBI prior to 9/11. There was nothing in the federal statute book which required FBI headquarters to disregard the specific warnings and alerts sent in by FBI agents in Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. There was no law prior to the Patriot Act which prevented the feds from putting together the warning signs of a pending airplane hijacking conspiracy. General Ashcroft, you disgracefully seek to absolve federal agencies of all their culpability for failing to stop 9/11 — simply because the feds did not have all the power they desired.”
Swelling up wrathfully now, Ashcroft countered, “The Act also allows the government to utilize well-accepted law enforcement tools in the fight against terror. These tools include delayed notification, judicially-supervised searches, and so-called roving wiretaps, which have long been used in combating organized crime and in the war on drugs. In using these tactics to fight terrorism, the Patriot Act includes an additional layer of protection for individual liberty. A federal judge supervises the use of each of these tactics.”
Bovard stuck his cigar in his mouth (prompting a gasp of horror from Dora) and leaned impudently over the lectern. “For most of these new powers, the ‘federal judge’ that Senator Ashcroft refers to is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — a secret court which meets in Justice Department headquarters and only hears the government’s side of any issue or case. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is a sham, as far as protecting Americans’ rights against government agencies.”
In the audience, somebody behind me grumbled, “Yeah, and that’s before you even get to the new ‘Patriot Act II’ garbage they just passed that let’s ’em snoop a whole lot more, as long as they write themselves a letter saying it’s for ‘national security.’ Not even a phony judge needed.”
Ashcroft, who might have heard the muttering, went from plain old wrathful to downright wrothful: “You have heard the hue and cry from critics who allege that liberty has been eroded. But more telling is what you have not heard. You have not heard of one single case in which a judge has found an abuse of the Patriot Act because there have been no abuses!”
And Bovard, plucking the cigar out again (to Dora’s relief) and flourishing it for emphasis, said, ” There’s a lag between when a law passes and when the abuses float to the surface. Unfortunately, with Governor Ashcroft’s gutting of FOIA and with other Bush administration secrecy policies, the feds have succeeded in keeping a lid on much of their mischief.
“But abuses? We already know some. The money laundering provisions alone of the Patriot Act have already resulted in hundreds of people’s property rights and privacy being trampled. Oh, and General Ashcroft — I haven’t even mentioned the way you used the ‘anti-terrorist’ Patriot Act to protect Americans from the deadly threat of strippers and lap-dancers in Las Vegas.”
The audience really snickered at that one, which seemed only to push Mr. A into higher-righteousness mode. “I can tell you one thing the Patriot Act does not do,” he barked, “Contrary to what its enemies have said, it does not allow the investigation of individuals, quote, ‘… solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States.’ … Even if someone in government wanted to delve into the reading habits and other protected First Amendment activities of our citizens, it would represent an impossible workload and a waste of law enforcement resources.”
Bovard examined his cigar, as though thinking deep thoughts. “The issue,” he said at last, “is not whether the feds try to track the reading habits of all Americans. The issue is whether the feds are conducting surveillance of the thousands or hundreds of thousands of people the government believes oppose or may oppose its policies.
“This comment about our First Amendment rights comes from the same Attorney General who bragged in 2002: ‘In its 94-year history, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been . . . the tireless protector of civil rights and civil liberties for all Americans.’ Mr. Ashcroft: Tell that to Randy Weaver. Tell that to the Americans who watched the FBI tanks pump the Branch Davidians home full of flammable toxic gas while crushing the walls down on the people inside. Tell that to the protestors in the 1960s and 1970s whose lives were ruined by FBI smears and dirty tricks. Tell that to the black civil rights leaders who were constantly being surveilled and undermined by the FBI.”
Ashcroft thundered, “But we’re protecting our homeland! In the past two years, no major terrorist attack has been perpetrated on our soil! Not one!”
Bovard shook his head. “By the same standard, Mr. Ashcroft, would you have bragged on September 10, 2001, that federal antiterrorism policies were a roaring success because there had been no major attack in the U.S. by international terrorists since the February 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center?”
Ashcroft raged, “With the Patriot Act, the American people have fulfilled the destiny shaped by our forefathers and founders, and revealed the power of freedom! … What we are defending is what generations before us fought for and defended: a nation that is a standard, a beacon, to all who desire a land that promises to uphold the best hopes of all mankind. A land of justice. A land of liberty.” And then Ashcroft thundered a warning to all heretics: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends!”
Bovard just stood there and listened for a moment, calm and cool. Then he sadly shook his head once again: “Destroy freedom to save it? Unleash the FBI to conduct surveillance almost any place it chooses — to protect privacy? Suppress dissent to preserve free speech? Mr. Ashcroft, you’re counting on the political illiteracy of those Americans who have been taught to view freedom as simply another government handout. And I don’t think those are the Americans you’ll find here in Hardyville.”
Turning to the audience Jim added, “The Founding Fathers’ concept of liberty was forged by decades of abuses by British colonial rulers. ‘The Restraint of Government is the True Liberty and Freedom of the People’ was a common American saying in the eighteenth century. Do any of us accept Mr. Ashcroft’s concept — that ‘the unleashing of government is the true liberty and freedom of the people'”?
While the entire Hardyville One-Plex erupted in cheers and stomping and whistles, accompanied by shouts of “NO!” and “Hell, NO!” and even a few “$#@!%! NO!s,” Bovard stood there at the lectern, put his cigar back into his mouth, struck a match … and grinned.
Mr. Ashcroft just started shaking all over his whole body and shouting stuff about “smiting” and “smoting.”
Afterward, a bunch of us took Jim to the Hog Trough and bought him a beer. Or two. We don’t know exactly what happened to Mr. Ashcroft. During the applause, his handlers surrounded him and swooped him off the stage to who knows where. We hope they gave him a nice glass of warm milk and a Valium. Or two.
No, I didn’t make all this up. Ashcroft’s statements (except the one about smiting and smoting, which I did make up) are taken from his speeches — primarily his November 15, 2003 speech before the Federalist Society. I’ve edited his remarks to fit the Hardyville debate format but haven’t changed their meaning. Jim Bovard’s remarks are by Jim Bovard, from his e-mail responses to the Ashcroft quotes. Jim also gave me permission to describe him as bald and scraggly, though he said all his friends would laugh if I implied he looked like the religious sort of monk.