Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's defiant answers Thursday to senators concerned about the Bush administration's plan to convene secret military courts came down to this: Trust us. Polls show that, for the moment, most Americans are content to do just that. Congress (the founding fathers would cheer loudly) is not so inclined.
The Bush plan to try terrorists nabbed abroad, and maybe foreigners arrested here, in closed-door trials and with a lower burden of proof is an extraordinary departure from established constitutional principles. Ashcroft has refused for two months to consult with or even report to Congress on the sweeping changes he has imposed. Thursday he stonewalled questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee and baited his critics: " ... To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our unity and diminish our resolve."
Ashcroft insists that Bush's power as commander in chief justifies his unilateral decision to round up suspects, refuse to give any details in most of the more than 1,200 arrests, call for secret military tribunals and listen to conversations between lawyers and jailed clients.
But government of the people is based on checks and balances and the understanding that we can protect our liberties only if the people's business is conducted in public. Americans want to be protected from terrorism and are eager to hear a reasoned and detailed explanation of how temporary infringements on freedoms are justified by tangible security gains.
Instead, Ashcroft told Congress, "There are some areas where I cannot and will not consult you." Here's the less arrogant response we would like to hear:
I understand that the public's tolerance for authoritarianism runs counter to this nation's basic instincts and will be short-lived. Americans are ultimately contemptuous of government when it tries to conceal. So Congress must be a full partner in this nation's fight against terrorism, and the people have a right to a full and open debate on the conduct of that fight at home and abroad. Our victory over terrorism will be pyrrhic if the liberties we treasure are eroded in the name of protecting us from evil.