Foes turn up heat on Ashcroft

November 26, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft found himself in a somewhat ironic situation the other day when he presided over the naming of the Justice Department building in honor of one of his predecessors in the job with whom he has little in common - the late Robert F. Kennedy.

Mr. Ashcroft likes to compare his approach toward the war on terrorism with Kennedy's own war against Mafia kingpins and labor tough guys like Jimmy Hoffa, saying he intends to get terrorist suspects off the streets the way he says Kennedy dealt with the hoods: by catching them in any minor violation of law.

But that's where the comparison ends. Mr. Ashcroft's record as a state attorney general, Missouri governor and senator in the realm of civil rights, where Robert Kennedy made a much more lasting contribution to American life than as a crime-fighter, obliged him to stand on his head disavowing his past during contentious Senate confirmation hearings last winter.

The large Kennedy clan, pleased at the dedication of the building and willing to swallow the temporary discomfort of Mr. Ashcroft trying to don the mantle of their lost kin even temporarily, sat and politely applauded the incumbent attorney general's remarks of praise. As one of them said later, "The building will be there long after he will."

But Mr. Ashcroft played host to the event at a time he is under increasing fire for his actions as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer.

His latest decision to eavesdrop on certain conversations between suspected terrorists or associates detained and not charged with any crime has many legal scholars declaring the order to be unconstitutionally in violation of client-attorney privilege.

One of Kennedy's daughters, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, seemed to allude to the matter at another event on the same day as the building dedication, saying to her own daughter, "Cara, if anyone tries to tell you this is the type of justice your grandpa would embrace, don't you believe it."

Others recall, however, that Kennedy as attorney general did authorize FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to wiretap Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on national security grounds when Hoover suspected the civil rights leader of associations with Communists during the Red Scare days. But Kennedy redeemed himself in the eyes of civil rights advocates with his record against racial discrimination.

There are other raps against Mr. Ashcroft and his attitude toward civil liberties.

His recent ruling against the so-called assisted suicide law in Oregon inspired a large ad in the New York Times by the Hemlock Society, self-described as "the nation's oldest and largest organization advocating death with dignity."

The ad says: "Intolerance comes in many forms. Attorney General John Ashcroft just arbitrarily decreed that terminally ill Americans cannot choose physician aide [sic] in dying. If his action stands, no hopelessly ill American in any state will be able to get physician help for a dignified death. This is an unwarranted and cruel intrusion into the private lives and personal choices of all Americans."

In another Oregon case, Portland's acting chief of police, Andrew Kirkland, has decided to buck Mr. Ashcroft by announcing he will not help the FBI question 200 Middle Eastern immigrants as part of the war on terrorism. The acting chief has invoked a state law that he says prohibits such interrogation of immigrants not suspected of having committed a crime.

This same matter of ethnic or racial profiling is being opposed in legislation co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, a liberal who nevertheless provided the deciding vote that moved Mr. Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general to the Senate floor last winter.

President Bush himself has gone out of his way to urge Americans not to engage in racial or ethnic profiling and has taken commendable action to shield Muslims from harassment by hosting a large group of Islamic leaders at the White House and visiting a major Islamic mosque. But civil libertarians are plainly concerned that he has a loose cannon running the Justice Department, which has such a critical role to play in the war on terrorism, especially on the home front.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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