of the news reports about John Ashcroft's appearance before the
Senate Judiciary Committee have focused on the attorney general's
"defiant" and "unyielding" stance toward critics
of Bush administration antiterrorism efforts. But there was another,
nearly as important, development during Thursday's hearing, and
that was the decision by a number of Democrats to open a new front
in their attack on Ashcroft. Equally alarming, for Republicans,
was that Ashcroft did not appear to know how to defend himself or
his administration's policy.
The issue was
guns. Thursday morning, hours before Ashcroft was set to testify,
the New York Times published a front-page story headlined,
"Justice Department Bars Use Of Gun Checks In Terror Inquiry."
The paper reported that FBI agents investigating suspects in the
antiterrorist probe had asked to review gun-purchase background
checks to see if any detainees had tried to buy firearms. Top Justice
Department officials, saying the background data could not be used
for that purpose, refused to allow the FBI to see the information.
The decision, according to the Times, was "in keeping
with Attorney General John Ashcroft's strong support of gun rights
and his longstanding opposition to the government's use of background
apparently timed to coincide with Ashcroft's testimony, blindsided
several Senate Republicans (although the Justice Department knew
it was coming). For their part, Democrats, some of whom were sources
for the Times, were well-prepared to use the new information
Sen. Ted Kennedy
read from a terrorist manual instructing jihadists-in-training to
purchase weapons legally in the U.S. "Why is the Department
handcuffing the FBI in its efforts to investigate gun purchases
by suspected terrorists?" Kennedy demanded to know. Ashcroft
responded that the background-check law, which created what is known
as the National Instant Check System, does not allow investigators
to use gun-purchase records for that purpose.
think it ought to be changed?" Kennedy asked. "I won't
comment on specific legislation in the hypothetical," Ashcroft
New York Democrat
Charles Schumer took the questioning one step further. When Ashcroft
again argued the law did not allow the FBI to see gun-purchase records,
Schumer asked why the Justice Department, when it recently requested
a number of changes in the law to aid the fight against terrorism,
didn't ask for the authority to review gun-purchase background checks.
"Why didn't you ask us for, when you asked us for a whole lot
of things in the antiterrorism bill, a whole lot of things that
you said new circumstances required us to need?" Schumer asked.
"Why didn't you ask us for that authority, if you believe you
don't have it?"
his belief that the law does not allow the FBI to review gun-purchase
information. But he never answered Schumer's question.
some Republicans were deeply concerned about Ashcroft's performance.
Some tried to defend the attorney general by arguing that none of
the September 11 terrorists used guns. While that is true, it is
also true that they did not use anthrax or explosives, and authorities
are actively investigating real and threatened terrorist acts involving
those. Some in the GOP conceded that Ashcroft's answer was, in the
description of one Hill aide, "technical" and failed to
address the real issue: Why can't investigators check the gun-buying
records of suspected terrorists? And if the attorney general believes
the law doesn't allow it, why hasn't he asked for new authority
to do so?
who support virtually every aspect of the Bush antiterrorism effort
nevertheless suspect Ashcroft's position on guns is wrong both on
substance and politics. Now, with Democrats charged up about the
issue, they fear political reprisals. "On everything else,
we're telling the American people, 'We're not protecting the feelings
of the ACLU, we're going after the terrorists to protect you,'"
the Hill aide says. "Now, they [Democrats] can turn it on us
and say, 'They're protecting the feelings of the NRA and not protecting