October 20, 2003,
At a hotel in the suburbs of Washington Sunday, conservative leaders Grover Norquist and David Keene joined forces with some of the most bitter and determined foes of the Bush White House to denounce the administration's main law-enforcement tool in the war on terrorism, the Patriot Act.
Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, and Keene, of the American Conservative Union, joined actor Alec Baldwin and People for the American Way president Ralph Neas as part of a conference called "Grassroots America Defends the Bill of Rights."
The conference featured seminars designed to teach activists how to oppose the act more effectively by mounting petition drives, media campaigns, and efforts to counter what organizers called Attorney General John Ashcroft's "campaign of half-truths, misleading statements, and outright lies." Several of the discussion sessions included representatives from far-left groups, as well as from Islamic organizations that have drawn criticism for allegedly endorsing or, at least failing to condemn, terrorism. Among those participating were representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom (the organization once headed by Sami al-Arian, the Florida professor facing terrorism-related charges), the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Muslim American Society (its representative, Mahdi Bray, played a prominent role in International ANSWER's antiwar protests in Washington), and the National Lawyers' Guild, and others.
Much of the support for the conference came from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has conducted a long campaign against the Patriot Act. The panel on which Baldwin, Neas, Norquist, and Keene appeared was sponsored by People for the American Way. Attendees were given a copy of the group's new report, "Two Years After 9/11: Ashcroft's Assault on the Constitution."
Baldwin, who moderated the discussion, has been one of the entertainment industry's most vocal critics of President Bush. For his part, Neas has taken a leading role in the campaign to block several of the president's judicial nominees.
At times, the panel discussion had the air of a love fest as the audience, which appeared to be dominated by anti-Bush activists, applauded Norquist's and Keene's criticisms of the act and the legislators who approved it. At times, both Norquist and Keene raised legitimate questions about the act, but neither man challenged what appeared to be substantial mischaracterizations of the act's provisions coming from the other side.
For example, on more than one occasion, panelists on the left repeated charges that the act allows federal law enforcement to seize personal records without judicial supervision and without having to report to Congress.
"What we're afraid of is any executive branch acting unilaterally, acting arbitrarily and capriciously, acting by executive fiat," Neas said. "We're trying to make sure that the checks and balances work, that the executive branch has to answer to Congress...They should be acting pursuant to congressional authorization and congressional oversight, and for sure, maybe the most important thing, is the courts have got to have the ability to act in an oversight capacity and review what the executive branch does. It is totally, totally unacceptable to circumvent the judicial branch and write them out of the equation."
The crowd burst into applause, and Baldwin turned to Norquist for comment.
"Ditto," Norquist said.
The crowd applauded even more, and Baldwin looked at both sides of the table, smiled, and said, "Can't you feel the love?"
Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows federal agents to view medical, business, library, and other records only after receiving the permission of a court. In addition, the act requires the Justice Department to report regularly and in significant detail to Congress, informing lawmakers of each use of that provision of the act.
After another panelist praised opponents who would not be "cowed" and "silenced" by Ashcroft, Keene, said, "I'm tempted to just say ditto, as Grover did."
But Keene continued, exhorting the crowd: "Remember, though, that the opposition, our opposition on these questions, wants to tag everybody here as enemies of security. Don't let that happen. We've got an action item, it's the right time, you go home and do what you need to do, and you can win."
In an interview, Keene defended his appearance. "I don't make common cause with them," he said of the groups at the conference, "but if they happen to agree with me, that's fine. There were also Libertarian Party people there. None of the Islamists came up to me, because I've been described as an enemy of Islam on their web sites....The fact of the matter is, we are concerned about certain aspects of the way the government is asking us to trade liberty for security, and I'll state that wherever I am."
Norquist was not available for comment Monday morning.