Ashcroft Taking Fire From GOP Stalwarts
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Fri Aug 29 08:30:15 MDT 2003
Ashcroft Taking Fire From GOP Stalwarts
More Wish to Curb Anti-Terrorism Powers
By Dan Eggen and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 29, 2003
BOISE, Idaho -- Even here, in a bedrock Republican state in the heart of the conservative Mountain West, a lot of people think Attorney General John D. Ashcroft has gone too far.
One of this state's most prominent politicians, Rep. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R), is leading an effort in Congress to curtail the centerpiece of Ashcroft's anti-terrorism strategy, the USA Patriot Act. Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who used to croon alongside Ashcroft in a senatorial quartet, said this month that Congress may have to consider scaling back parts of the law. And in a state with an all-GOP congressional delegation, several city councils and the legislature are considering resolutions condemning Ashcroft's tactics in the war on terrorism.
"Ashcroft wants more power," said state Rep. Charles Eberle (R-Post Falls), who has drafted a resolution critical of the Patriot Act. "What a lot of us in Idaho are saying is, 'Let's not get rid of the checks and balances.' . . . People out here in the West are used to taking care of themselves. We don't like the government intruding on our constitutional rights."
Ashcroft has always been one of the Bush administration's most controversial figures, particularly among liberals and Democrats who fiercely opposed his nomination. But now the attorney general finds himself at odds with some fellow Republicans from Idaho to Capitol Hill who are troubled by the extent of his anti-terrorism tactics and angered by his unwillingness to compromise.
The rise of opposition within his own party could threaten Ashcroft's bid to secure even greater powers for the Justice Department's war on terrorism.
New Harris Poll numbers released this week also show Ashcroft's overall popularity slipping below 50 percent for the first time this year, while the percentage of those who disapprove of his performance has climbed to nearly 40 percent.
The tumult has made Ashcroft a central issue in the Democratic presidential campaign, where candidates are turning to him and his terrorism policies as a sure-fire way to rally the party faithful. Democrats also hope that focusing on Ashcroft will raise doubts among undecided voters about the Bush administration's tactics in the national security arena.
During a campaign stop in New Hampshire last week, former Vermont governor Howard Dean went so far as to summon the ghosts of Watergate, calling Ashcroft perhaps the worst attorney general in history -- worse, he said, than President Richard M. Nixon's attorney general, John N. Mitchell.
"And he was a criminal," Dean told supporters.
Amid the growing controversy, Ashcroft traveled this week to Boise and two other GOP-friendly cities, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, as part of a month-long tour to drum up support for the Patriot Act. "Make no mistake: Our strategies and tactics are working," he said. "Our tools are effective. We are winning the war on terror."
The former Missouri senator and governor, who once flirted with a presidential bid as a candidate of the religious right, says he is untroubled by the increased focus on his anti-terrorism policies, and has shown no sign of tempering his rhetoric. In his address Monday to police and prosecutors here, Ashcroft called the war on terrorism "the cause of our times" and, in a thinly veiled jab at Otter, warned that those who want to restrict the law "would tip off the terrorists that we're on to them."
In an interview after the Boise speech, Ashcroft said he pays little attention to criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. He said he believes that the Otter amendment approved 309 to 118 by the House in July, which would cut off funding for "sneak-and-peek" warrants, "was a mistake," and that many members did not know what they were voting for.
"I don't take things personally," Ashcroft said. "Debate about civil liberties is a good thing. In no way do I want to silence debate. I want to participate in the debate, to help people understand the truth of what we're doing and how we are defending Americans against terrorists."
But Otter, who was one of only three Republicans to vote against the original Patriot legislation, said Ashcroft and the Bush administration are making a mistake by continuing to ignore objections to the Patriot Act and by implying that those with concerns are aiding terrorists. The measure, approved just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, dramatically expanded the ability of the government to monitor and search the belongings of people targeted in terrorism investigations. It includes provisions that allow FBI agents to conduct secret searches and to seize records from banks, libraries and other businesses without disclosing that they have done so.
"It's pretty reckless to say that 309 members of Congress want to tip off terrorists," said Otter, who noted that more than a third of the votes cast for his amendment came from Republicans. "Instead of hitting the campaign trail, the attorney general should be listening to the concerns that many Americans have about some portions of the act."
Ashcroft has often commented on the bumpiness of his life in politics, which included the embarrassment of losing his Senate seat in 2000 to a Democrat, Mel Carnahan, who remained on the Missouri ballot after he died in a plane crash. Less than three months later, Ashcroft won confirmation as President Bush's attorney general by a 58-42 margin, the narrowest in recent times. As Ashcroft wrote in an autobiography about his political career, "for every crucifixion, a resurrection is waiting to follow."
Since taking office, Ashcroft has drawn the left's ire for the reach of the government's war on terrorism; for overruling local prosecutors in death penalty cases; for altering the government's decades-old interpretation of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms; and for overseeing continued raids on facilities that provide marijuana for medical purposes. Now some conservatives, concerned that the war on terrorism has eroded civil liberties, are joining the criticism of Ashcroft's policies for the first time.
David Israelite, a longtime aide who serves as Ashcroft's deputy chief of staff, said that "being criticized is nothing new for someone who's been a senator or governor. He's more concerned about the judgment of history than the judgment of how he's portrayed in the press or by opportunists on either side."
But many civil liberties advocates and some lawmakers still bristle at Ashcroft's sharply worded testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2001, in which he suggested that critics were aiding terrorists and endangering the safety of U.S. citizens.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero, whose group has helped organize many of the anti-Patriot Act resolutions approved in recent months by more than 150 municipalities and states, said Ashcroft is now "clearly on the defensive. He and the Justice Department have finally understood that there are large portions of the public raising questions about their policies on terrorism and the Patriot Act. The opposition is springing up all across the country."
Yet it is still unclear whether bashing Ashcroft will be a political winner in 2004. As Ashcroft and his aides point out, most Americans and lawmakers supported the Patriot Act when it was approved in October 2001, and few voters mention it as a top concern when questioned by pollsters. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Sens. John F. Kerry (Mass.), John Edwards (N.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) -- all of whom are Democrats running for president and criticizing Ashcroft -- were among those who voted for the act.
Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Democrats have little to gain politically from targeting the attorney general because his tactics are favored by most of the electorate.
"The Democrats who are attacking John Ashcroft and his policies to appeal to the hard-core component of the Democratic primary electorate are likely to find themselves on the opposite side of a vast majority of Americans, who are concerned about the threat of terrorist attacks in the aftermath of September 11," he said.
Ashcroft and the White House point to a July 31 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll showing that 91 percent of registered voters said the act had not affected their civil liberties, while 56 percent said the law is good for the country. Moreover, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks appear to have changed U.S. attitudes over how much latitude the federal government needs and should be given to fight terrorism, pollsters from both parties said.
At the very least, Democrats believe their attacks on Ashcroft and the Patriot Act will help rally the party's base. They also aim to win over what they see as a big pool of potential voters who have deep concerns about government intrusion into their lives.
Even some Republicans are troubled by Ashcroft's visits to 18 cities in 16 states, questioning whether the tour will do more harm than good by focusing attention on the civil liberties issue. Larry D. Thompson, the departing deputy attorney general, and key White House officials reached out to several conservatives in recent weeks to enlist their help, only to hear of deep concerns about the act from some allies, sources familiar with the effort said.
One Republican who has discussed the matter with White House officials said that, at the very least, Ashcroft is taking the heat instead of Bush. "This gives Bush some distance, because this is an issue with liabilities," he said. The White House may be "sending [Ashcroft] out to see if it works, to test the waters, to see how mad people are," he added.
Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report. VandeHei reported from Washington and New Hampshire.
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