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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2002
Russell Feingold was the lone Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of confirming John Ashcroft as attorney general. In addition to feeling strongly that a president has the right to choose his cabinet, the Wisconsin liberal was comforted by Ashcroft's commitment to address the problem of racial profiling -- one of Feingold's areas of prime concern.
Who could have predicted then that Ashcroft would embark on a campaign of racial profiling on a scale not seen since the Japanese internment?
After Sept. 11, nearly 1,200 people were jailed or detained on suspicion of terrorism. What they shared in common was that they were overwhelmingly male, Middle Eastern or Arab-looking and Muslim. Since then, almost all of the detainees have been released or deported without any charges of terrorism.
Now the senator is engaged in a heroic campaign to hold Ashcroft and the Justice Department to constitutional standards. He is leading a Cervantes brigade.
Feingold's first tilt at the Justice monolith was his vote against the USA Patriot Act, which markedly expanded the ability of the government to conduct surveillance and detain individuals without judicial approval. Feingold was the only senator to vote "no."
As the bill galloped to passage in the wake of the attacks, Feingold introduced three amendments to slightly narrow the new powers Congress was handing the FBI. None passed. His colleagues were still shivering in their well-protected incumbent seats after Ashcroft told them that any questions about civil liberties would be "aiding the terrorists." So, the Patriot Act was rushed into existence with an expectation that Congress would be able to monitor the way some of these new powers were utilized.
Fat chance. Since the law's enactment, Ashcroft and the Justice Department have virtually ignored congressional requests for information on its implementation and the ongoing terrorism investigation. Feingold and a number of his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee have sent reams of questions to the department. The requests are simple, such as: the names of those being held as detainees, the number of material witnesses kept in maximum security facilities, and even something as basic as instructions issued for law enforcement on the use of Patriot Act powers.
Few of these questions have been answered in a responsive fashion, and often the senators' letters haven't been acknowledged. In a recent letter to the committee, the Justice Department said flatly it will send any responses it deigns to provide to the House Intelligence Committee, a committee which is not engaging in oversight on the use of Patriot Act powers.
This red-white-and-blue wall of silence has gotten so frustrating that when Ashcroft appeared before the committee in July, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a member of Ashcroft's own party, asked exasperatedly, "How do we communicate with you, and are you really too busy to respond?"
It is one thing for the administration to ignore congressional demands for the details of an energy policy meeting between the vice president and executives from the Enron Corp. where it might be interesting to see the influence the bankrupt company had on our oilmen in the White House. It is quite another to refuse requests by Congress to know who is being held in American jails and detention facilities in the people's name following Sept. 11. Here, the snub goes to the very heart of our system of checks and balances.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has an express responsibility to police the Justice Department. But Ashcroft has figured out that if he stonewalls the committee he can keep it from exerting authority. A recent report in the insider newspaper, The Hill, suggests this is a signature tactic of the Bush administration and has been used as a way of sidestepping "a number of draining political confrontations."
Feingold says he intends to continue to press for information "until I receive satisfactory responses to my questions," and he seems as dogged as ever. Lately, he has been especially relentless on the extent to which the FBI is using -- or abusing -- its new Patriot Act powers to subpoena library and bookstore records without probable cause. A university study found a significant number of libraries have been visited by law enforcement, and Feingold has asked Ashcroft to report on how many of these contacts "have directly led to the prosecution of terrorists or the prevention of acts of terrorism?"
There is no word yet from the department, and it's clear none will be forthcoming. It is well past time to break out the subpoenas.