US Attorney General John Ashcroft went to Capitol Hill Monday afternoon to sell the Bush Administration's new slew of anti-terror laws to the House Judiciary Committee.
Among the many provisions to make the entire US populace an Enemy of the State and therefore subject to suspicion were two which nearly gave me a stroke: one positively Nazi innovation enabling the indefinite detention of suspicious aliens with a prohibition on judicial review so no judge can stop the insanity (which proves that they know it's unconstitutional); and one which would elevate hacking to the level of a terrorist act and invoke a mandatory life sentence.
The old Hamre/Clark dream of preemptively prosecuting the 'Electronic Pearl Harbor' is alive and well in the hands of Bush's advisors.
US Representative Howard Coble (Republican, North Carolina) brought up the hacking controversy by lobbing a sticky softball gracefully in Ashcroft's direction:
"The Administration's bill includes provisions for the prosecution of certain computer crimes as terrorist offences. What about this type of offense makes it necessary to include them in the definition of terrorism," he asked suggestively.
Ashcroft took his lead perfectly, in spite of Coble's constant interruptions: "Why should computer crimes rise to the level of terrorist acts? When you think about the utilization of computers in air traffic control, you can imagine the chaos that could come from the disruption of that system..."
"I gotcha," Coble growled.
"...if we had an assault launched through a computer virus or some other infection in the computer infrastructure. not to mention other very serious controls that relate to other infrastructure whether it be power grids, power generation, supplies and the like....
"Yeah I wanted that on the record, General, because some folks might think it was too far reaching. I just wanted it on the record," Coble said slyly.
"Well, you and I obviously are on the same wavelength..."
"Damn straight," Coble growled again.
"...We understand that these kinds of crimes can threaten the lives and well-being of multitudes of individuals," Ashcroft said finally.
Not everyone on the committee was thrilled with the proposed legislation, which is in some sort of mad race to the finish line and scheduled for markup Tuesday morning.
Ranking member John Conyers (Democrat, Michigan) was among those least amused.
"There are a number of provisions in your measure that give us Constitutional trouble," he noted. Such things as indefinite detention and permitting surveillance of Americans performed by foreign agents to be used as evidence in court. Conyers was "deeply troubled" by those and at least a half-dozen other provisions.
Ashcroft retaliated by trying to make Conyers appear unpatriotic.
"This is a time for leadership," he replied, leaning hard on the implication that to apply reason in the current anti-terrorist frenzy would be one of the worst career moves a politician could make.
"We would be ill advised to find a reason that someone else might be slowing down, and indicate that we didn't understand the urgency that was appropriate to the ability to protect the American people. We need to unleash every possible tool in the fight against terrorism and do so promptly."
It was a bit confused, a bit rough, but if I take him right, he was trying to say, 'it would amount to political suicide if you were seen to be dithering over semantics and legal niceties while the Administration is trying to bring Justice and Safety to the world.'
He characterized the Bush package as "careful, balanced, long-overdue improvements to our capacity to combat terrorism."
"It is not a wish list; it is modest set of essential proposals," Ashcroft insisted.
Let's hope less hysterical heads prevail. ®