Ashcroft’s Constitutional subversions must stop

The Roman “maxim inter arma silent legis” – “in war the laws are silent” – seems to have become the guiding principle for Attorney General John Ashcroft’s vision of fighting terrorism. Thanks to his law-enforcement free-for-all, 1,200 suspects languish in prison, 5,000 await “voluntary questioning,” attorney-client privacy in federal prisons is effectively a thing of the past, and The Times of London reported Monday that Ashcroft’s first draft of the anti-terrorism bill would have done away with a detained suspect’s right to a trial.

Although the Senate stopped that effort cold, The New York Times reported Saturday that Ashcroft now plans to do away with the FBI’s policies against spying on political and religious organizations. Under the rules, instituted after the FBI’s 1960s and ’70s domestic harassment campaigns, undercover FBI agents cannot investigate groups meeting in churches, mosques or synagogues without probable cause or evidence someone in the group broke the law.

Anti-terrorism officials claim Islamic militants, aware of the FBI limitations, have been meeting in mosques, but Ashcroft’s comments reveal a more virulent contempt for religious freedom and an outrageous desire to extend the tentacles of his investigative beast.

“Ö Any organization that makes it part of its mantra Ö to kill innocent American people Ö we’re interested in them,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” “If a religion is hijacked and used as a cover for killing thousands of Americans, we’re interested in that.”

Ashcroft continued, “There aren’t areas of this culture that are authorized by virtue of some cloak they draw over them to be criminal and to assault and kill Americans.” After paying lip service to religious liberty, the attorney general said “for so-called terrorists to gather over themselves some rope of clericism Ö and claim immunity from being observed, people who hijack a religion and make out of it an implement of war will not be free from our interests.”

Never mind the president’s assurances that a war on terrorism is not a war on Islam. Never mind the millions of Muslims in the United States and worldwide who have condemned the Sept. 11 attacks and continue to practice a peaceful religion. And never mind the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to practice religion, discuss beliefs and even confess sins without wondering if the government is listening. Ashcroft seems prepared to turn professions of faith into an indictment or even blackmail to gain a coerced convert to his crusade.

“God bless America” is not restricted to a god whose followers unquestioningly wave the flag while surrendering whatever freedoms get in the way of Ashcroft’s frustrated search for smoking guns. Monitoring suspects with probable cause is good law enforcement; infiltrating religious organizations is unconstitutional. The Constitution was not designed to be silent, even during war, and it needs more than ever to speak loudly enough for Ashcroft to hear.