Expanded Powers Raise Concerns About Ashcroft
by Bob Port, New York Daily News, 22 November 2001
Attorney General John Ashcroft is making sweeping changes in federal law enforcement to fight America's war on terrorism, but his efforts have yet to yield a single indictment and are generating growing concern among both parties in Congress that he is overstepping his authority.
The changes are potentially seismic. Law enforcement agencies have been given expanded wiretap authority, military tribunals are being set up for some terrorism defendants and federal agents have approval to listen in on a lawyer's jailhouse phone calls, despite constitutional limits on such eavesdropping.
Police will be able to trace e-mail on mere suspicion -- without a judge's permission -- and the CIA will be able to collaborate with the FBI on domestic security issues.
In a matter of weeks, Ashcroft has achieved a policy transformation unlike any in decades -- partly with congressional approval and partly by Ashcroft's or the president's order.
But Ashcroft hasn't stopped there. He has announced a "wartime reorganization" inside the Justice Department and FBI.
Fighting terrorism has become the FBI's new "core mission," leaving local cops on their own to fight organized crime, solve bank robberies and track down drug traffickers.
Authority over the prosecution of terrorists has been plucked from New York City, where outgoing U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White presided, and consolidated in Washington.
Instead of just one terrorism task force in New York, Ashcroft has declared, there will be "a national network of anti-terrorism task forces" reporting to the Justice Department.
A New Mission:
The changes are so abrupt and rely so much on executive orders that even conservatives are expressing their concern.
On Friday, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and a conservative, joined Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's chairman and a liberal, to sign a curt letter to the attorney general to "suggest" that after Thanksgiving he pencil in "several hours" to chat with legislators.
"The Department of Justice has taken a number of actions since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11," the letter said. "We request that you appear before the committee during the week after Thanksgiving."
The request was a virtual subpoena. Twice in recent weeks, Ashcroft has snubbed invitations to appear before the senators.
House members report similar experiences.
"Concern has been rising for some time on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol," said David Carle, a spokesman for Leahy.
"The concern is over the almost complete lack of consultation with congressional leaders or congressional committees as the attorney general has taken one unilateral action after another in the name of the war on terrorism," Carle said.
Leahy reportedly lost his patience when Ashcroft authorized limited wiretaps of terror suspects who phone their attorneys from behind bars.
Republicans kept their reservations to themselves until last week, when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., rose on the Senate floor to challenge the President's and Ashcroft's plan to use military tribunals -- panels of officers who function with their own rules of evidence -- to try suspected terrorists, in secret if the president chooses.
"It is the Congress that has the authority to establish the parameters and the proceedings under such courts," Specter said. "That is what the Constitution says. We have the authority to decide how those trials will be conducted."
Civil libertarians are preparing to sue Ashcroft under the Freedom of Information Act for keeping secret the names of hundreds of detainees corralled in the post-Sept. 11 law enforcement frenzy.
Some of the more than 1,100 detainees are still being held in jails across the nation. Exactly how many and where, the Justice Department can't or won't say.
But so far, despite all the bureaucratic maneuvering to centralize the war on terror in Washington, the feds have not charged anyone with a crime tied to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union say Ashcroft has gone too far, and that he is capitalizing on the national mood to establish unbridled police power.
"He's basically out of control," said Morton Halperin, chairman of the Center for National Security Studies. "Some of it's acceptable. Some of it's outrageous."
Question of Use:
Ashcroft, Halperin argues, knows that the president's executive order in military tribunals envisions domestic use, and that he should know that is unconstitutional.
As the war over tribunals unfolds, Ashcroft's changes have spread ripples of unease inside the Justice Department.
Justice is planning major overhauls of old computer systems used in federal law enforcement. Ashcroft has ordered two new posts created in every federal prosecutor's office: a chief technology officer and training officer, both with substantial anti-terrorism duties.
Last week, White announced she will leave at year's end.
White successfully prosecuted the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, in the process developing much of the information investigators now have about Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization. She will no longer be the nation's No. 1 prosecutor of terrorists.
That authority will reside with Michael Chertoff, formerly U.S. attorney in Newark and once a top prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office under New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
White's departure "is going to be a huge loss for the government," said Robert Cleary, Newark's current U.S. attorney, a Clinton-era holdover, as is White.
Her office would not discuss White's departure further, but other Justice Department sources say she was being cut out of decisions that she once guided.
The FBI has not been spared in the shakeup. Its top deputy director, Thomas Pickard, 50, unexpectedly announced his retirement recently, citing family reasons. Pickard was pointman for the FBI terror and anthrax probes.
"Tom Pickard added a great deal to this investigation, both investigatively and from an institutional perspective," said Lewis Schiliro, former director of the FBI's New York office. "I hope his replacement brings as much to the table. I think the timing is going to be difficult in terms of making the transition."
Hundreds of officers have been reassigned to track down leads involving the terrorist attacks.
Many agents in the 1,100-strong New York office, who have spent years building expertise in fighting organized crime or drug trafficking, may be transferred under the plan.
Amid the upheaval, one former FBI official wondered why it's taking so long to see terror indictments.
"When you have people in custody -- and no one is charged -- you have to wonder, eight weeks into it," he said.
© 2001 New York Daily News
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.