Saturday, September 20, 2003


It is stunning, this cranky, selective myopia of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

He revealed Thursday that intelligence agencies hadn’t been skulking through the records of libraries and bookstores, even though the USA Patriot Act’s section 215 allows it.

“The fact is, with just 11,000 FBI agents and over a billion visitors to America’s libraries each year, the Department of Justice has neither the staffing, the time nor the inclination to monitor the reading habits of Americans,” Ashcroft told a Memphis, Tenn., gathering of police and prosecutors. “No offense to the American Library Association, but we just don't care.”

“The charges of the hysterics are revealed for what they are: castles in the air built on misrepresentation, supported by unfounded fear, held aloft by hysteria,” he said.

An almost pretty sentence, except for the tautology that charges of hysterics were held aloft by hysteria, and almost convincing, except for the largish facts that: during the writing of the act, someone asked for section 215 to be included (even though “we just don’t care”); it was; it exists; and that just because it hasn’t yet been used, that doesn’t mean it won’t be.

Ashcroft and the Bush administration ask for what they get, but they are blind to the connection. They demand secrecy, for instance, in matters big and small, involving national security or not, but are angry when people don’t trust them. The Patriot Act says section 215 can be used without revealing it is being used, and Ashcroft resisted until now breaking the silence. Since he admits it hasn’t been used, Ashcroft finds himself, again in the style of a surly Mr. Magoo, in the middle of another Bush administration conundrum:

If his defense of section 215 is that it hasn’t been used, why need it exist? Since it’s clear (so far) that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were allowed to happen by a stultifying bureaucracy and failure of analysis, not lack of data or warnings, it’s entirely unclear what benefit the nation gets from the new powers of its intelligence agencies.

Especially, of course, the ones not being used.

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