By Corrigan, Don
St. Louis Journalism Review , Vol. 35, No. 276
John Ashcroft, attorney general of the United States during George W. Bush's first term as president, say go down as one of the most disastrous attorneys general for American civil liberties in U.S. history.
That is the conclusion of Betty Winfield, University of Missouri Curators Professor in the School of Journalism. Winfield recently published a study in the Missouri Law Review of her historical research on attorneys general who reacted to national crisis situations.
Among the incursions on civil liberties under Ashcroft are assorted privacy invasions; the failure to provide cause for the arrests of terror suspects; the breaking and entering of private premises without a search warrant; and widespread abuses in rejecting and returning immigrants.
Winfield said the news media have not explained what's at stake with the infringements on civil liberties, and the news media have not covered the extent of these infringements.
"The media, in my estimation, have not been the vigilant watchdogs for American civil liberties, especially initially," Winfield said. "Just now after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, just now after so many thousands of Muslims were returned to their home countries or jailed, just now after the ACLU demanded justice documents--are we seeing the extent of the justice department's activities under Ashcroft's tenure."
Winfield identified 78 attorneys general who have broadened the interpretation and enforcement of existing laws during domestic and foreign crises. Winfield has developed four models of attorneys general during wartime and found that Ashcroft fit two of these descriptions.
"John Ashcroft exemplified the relationship between government power and civil liberties," Winfield said. "He either ignored criticism of his actions or labeled those who decried them as aiding terrorists, being unpatriotic and 'living in a dream world.'"
According to Winfield, the four models of these attorneys general are coordinator, extreme aggressor, extreme aggressor-fall guy and leveler. The coordinator facilitates the president's wishes no matter how constitutionally questionable those actions may be, Winfield said.
They're forceful during crises but are not closely identified with overt infringement of civil liberties. Thomas Gregory, President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general during World War I, fit this model.
The extreme aggressor, such as Mitchell Palmer, Wilson's attorney general during the Red Scare years, becomes more ambitious and publicly initiates aggressive actions, Winfield said. …