New York Times Editorial
November 21, 2001

An Invitation to John Ashcroft

Attorney General John Ashcroft's first post-Thanksgiving priority should be explaining to Congress his plans for curbing civil liberties.

Lawmakers who have been eager to cooperate with the Bush administration's antiterrorist agenda are unnerved by the president's intention to use secret military tribunals to try terrorists. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Orrin Hatch, the committee's ranking Republican, have asked Mr. Ashcroft to appear to answer questions. The attorney general, who has ignored previous Congressional requests for details about the administration's worrisome new law enforcement policies, has now agreed to testify. The hearing is to be on Dec. 6, but Mr. Ashcroft still insists he cannot spare more than a few hours to attend.

Apart from questions about military tribunals, Mr. Leahy and his colleagues should use the opportunity to require the elusive Mr. Ashcroft to account for some of the Justice Department's other dubious departures from American principles, such as the new policy of wiretapping conversations between some prisoners and their lawyers. The government is also continuing to hold hundreds of detainees without revealing their identities, the charges being brought against them or even the reasons for such secrecy.

The Bush administration has been reluctant to either consult Congress in advance about its antiterrorism campaign, or to answer questions after the fact. Having Mr. Ashcroft publicly explain the administration's actions is an important step toward keeping the war against terrorism within constitutional bounds. But realistically, it is only a beginning. Moving toward a more balanced position on civil liberties and national security will take more than jawboning at a single hearing.

Copyright 2001, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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