Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy begins an intensive
series of hearings designed to examine military tribunals, detention
of suspects and witnesses, and other aspects of the Bush Justice
Department's response to terrorism. But Republicans believe the
hearings have a secondary purpose as well: to renew the attacks
on Attorney General John Ashcroft that began during his confirmation
hearings ten months ago.
titled "Department of Justice Oversight: Preserving Our Freedoms
While Defending Against Terrorism," ran into trouble even before
it began. Although Leahy proposed to probe Justice Department policies,
he did not schedule anyone from the Justice Department to testify.
Last week, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant wrote a letter
to Leahy saying, "Given that the stated subject of the November
28 hearing is Department of Justice oversight, it is appropriate
that a representative of the Justice Department be present as a
witness." Bryant suggested criminal-division head Michael Chertoff,
who, Bryant dryly added, "would be an excellent witness on
issues related to Justice Department actions since September 11."
Leahy added Chertoff to the list at virtually the last minute.
Leahy had originally
made several requests for Ashcroft to testify. After putting the
chairman off, the attorney general is scheduled to appear before
the committee next week. Although his testimony will undoubtedly
draw an enormous amount of press coverage, it will be just one of
many committee sessions in coming weeks. Democrats have scheduled
full committee hearings and subcommittee hearings on the war on
terrorism at the rate of one, and sometimes two, sessions a day.
Republican lawmakers approve of Bush administration policies, they
also believe the Justice Department's actions in the war on terrorism
are a legitimate area for congressional oversight. However, the
sheer number of hearings, plus the involvement of a coalition of
liberal interest groups that attacked Ashcroft at his confirmation
hearings early this year, suggests, at least to the GOP, that Democrats
are also interested in inflicting political damage on the attorney
of one of those interest groups, Ralph Neas of People for the American
Way, recently called Ashcroft "the most dangerous threat to
civil liberties in the federal government," and accused the
attorney general of waging a "relentless assault on constitutional
rights and civil liberties." A report released this month by
Neas's group says the Justice Department's antiterrorism policies
"vindicate many of the fears expressed by civil rights and
civil liberties organizations when John Ashcroft was first nominated
for the position of U.S. attorney general. In fact, many of those
fears had been vindicated even before September 11."
believe Leahy and other Democrats have chosen to concentrate their
fire on Ashcroft as a way of scoring points against the Bush administration
without appearing to attack the president, who enjoys high job approval
ratings. For example, Republicans point out that the issue of military
tribunals was a Bush executive order that will be carried out by
the Defense Department. Why not go after the White House instead
of focusing on Ashcroft? While that might be the more direct approach,
at the moment even Neas seems inclined to exempt Bush from criticism.
"The sense I get is that the president has focused primarily
on what's going on overseas and has delegated what's going on domestically
to the attorney general," he says.
in the GOP believe another name for the flurry of Judiciary Committee
activity might be "What We're Doing Instead Of Confirming Judges."
There has been little if any progress on the issue of judges since
the failure of a GOP plan to block appropriations bills as a way
of forcing Democrats to consider more of the president's judicial
nominations. Now, with no pressure to act, Leahy is virtually ignoring
the issue. Will Republicans renew a push for more confirmations
before the end of the year? "There's no point in it,"
says one frustrated aide.