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Oversee Ashcroft

Attorney General John Ashcroft’s supporters credit his aggressive campaign of detentions, surveillance and interrogation with preventing any further terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. Ashcroft’s critics contend that his methods are a danger to civil liberties. Actually, both sides may be right — making it imperative that Congress rigorously oversee his activities. But both Republicans and Democrats say this isn’t happening.

As Roll Call reported Monday, Ashcroft rarely appears before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, and many lawmakers say he is unresponsive when Members ask about the Justice Department’s use of the broad new investigative powers granted under the 2001 USA Patriot Act. “It’s like pulling teeth to get answers,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “I think the problem is that Congress doesn’t do enough oversight.”

Ashcroft did appear last Thursday before the House panel, but it was his first testimony there in 20 months. He appeared before the Senate committee in March of this year, the first time since July 2002.

By contrast, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has appeared before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees 10 times since the beginning of 2002 and gave classified briefings to Members nearly every week in the run-up to the Iraq war. Secretary of State Colin Powell has appeared before the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee eight times in 2002 and 2003 and also has given numerous classified briefings.

While House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has been sensitive to the potential dangers to civil liberties involved with the war on terrorism, his Senate counterpart, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), seems dismissive of the oversight issue. Only under pressure from Grassley and other members of his committee has he agreed to hold a hearing on the report of the Justice Department’s inspector general that the civil rights of some post-Sept. 11 detainees were violated. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Judiciary subcommittees do a better job of overseeing the Justice Department than the full committee does.

Hatch should recall that when he was Judiciary chairman between 1995 and mid-2001, he systematically shielded the FBI and its former director from criticism. Rigorous oversight — “tough love,” you might call it — might have prevented the grave problems later discovered in the FBI’s counterintelligence operations, its crime lab, its “culture” and its terrorist-tracking capabilities.

The war on terrorism is too important — both in its security and civil liberties aspects — for Congress to simply rely on administration assurances that all is going well.

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