WASHINGTON -- If I didn't know better, I'd suspect that the comedy writers for Saturday Night Live had taken over at the Justice Department. Except it's not a laughing matter.
Attorney General John Ashcroft's latest explanation for refusing to provide the names of about 1,100 individuals being detained because of possible knowledge about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is that he wants to protect their privacy rights.
He apparently is much less concerned about their right to be protected against seizure without specific charges and detention at undisclosed locations.
This latest deep concern against creating what Mr. Ashcroft calls "a public blacklist" comes as the FBI under his authority is trying to undertake a dragnet of more than 5,000 people, mostly men ages 18 to 33 of Middle Eastern background, who may or may not know something about the terrorism threat.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit is sending out letters in the area, which has an Arab-American and Arab immigrant community of as many as 300,000 souls, asking recipients to come in voluntarily to be interviewed.
"Your name was brought to our attention," the letter says, "because among other things you came to Michigan on a visa from a country where there are groups that support, advocate or finance international terrorism."
The letter goes on: "We have no reason to believe that you are in any way associated with terrorist activities. Nevertheless, you may know something that could be helpful in our efforts."
The letter has already sent shock waves through the Arab-American community, with some recipients wondering why they have been singled out and even raising fears that they are being rounded up for detention, in the way Japanese-Americans were herded into concentration camps during World War II.
While the authorities in Detroit have given assurances that those who do come in voluntarily "will be treated with respect and courtesy throughout the interview process," many immigrants quake at any contact from the feds.
It's easy to say they have nothing to fear when they know Mr. Ashcroft has said he intends to tighten up on possible visa violators on any grounds he can find.
That the Justice Department thinks anybody who has significant knowledge of terrorists or their activities is likely to stroll in voluntarily and sing seems more than a bit naive.
But then, when Mr. Ashcroft recently authorized eavesdropping on conversations between detainees and their lawyers, it was specified that they would be notified in advance that federal agents would be listening in. How's that as an invitation to dummy up?
The letters respectfully asking their recipients to call in for an interview appointment may remind the more suspicious of them of police sting operations in Washington and other cities not too long ago.
Individuals wanted by the law on various charges were sent fancy and elaborate invitations to parties to meet local sports celebrities.
When they showed up, often dressed to the nines, the doors were locked behind them by the cops and they were shipped off to the slammer.
There's no reason to think any such thing will happen in this matter.
But Mr. Ashcroft's insensitivity to civil liberties, in his zeal to do his part in the war on terrorism on the home front, understandably is casting him in many eyes as a chief law-enforcement officer guided by the argument that the ends justify the means.
His boss, President Bush, has contributed to the concerns of civil libertarians with his declaration that military tribunals may supplant civil courts in trying suspected terrorists.
And not only civil libertarians; the government of Spain says it won't extradite eight suspected terrorists to this country as long as they face military trials and the death penalty here.
The rationale that the nation is at war has led to too many regrettable excesses in the past. Mr. Bush has also said care must be taken in fighting the war that the terrorists don't succeed in destroying cherished American values and liberties. It's something he needs to remember himself, and remind his attorney general, too.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.