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Mary McGrory

Silence About Secrecy

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, September 12, 2002; Page A23

Franklin Pierce, whose name is a synonym for obscurity, was the only New Hampshire man to make it to the Oval Office. He was a calamity of a president and even worse as an ex-president. The only reason to give him a thought now is that he had one redeeming feature: a passion for the Constitution, learned at the knee of his father, a Revolutionary War veteran -- and that is a quality we could use now.

Pierce excoriated his successor, Abraham Lincoln, for suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War. At a Fourth of July celebration he declared that "the mere arbitrary will of the president takes the place of the Constitution." Pierce's attacks are detailed in "In the Memory House," a book by New Hampshire writer Howard Mansfield.

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George Bush has not gone as far as Lincoln, yet. But a report from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights tells us of the liberties he has taken with our civil liberties since the war on terrorism began. The report is depressing reading. Attorney General John Ashcroft led the charge to ring down the curtain of secrecy on the unfortunate immigrants who made the authorities suspicious. The roundups, isolation and secret hearings held on these cases are rather conspicuous constitutional violations, but Ashcroft is adamant and reproaches federal judges who protest.

Judge Robert G. Doumar, who is handling the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S.-born Saudi Arabian and alleged Taliban friend, conspicuously differed with Ashcroft about the latter's practice of describing detainees as "enemy combatants" and throwing them into military prisons, where they are held indefinitely and forbidden visits from lawyers or family. Judge Doumar, a Reagan appointee, jolted Justice by declaring that the whole process reminded him of the star chamber proceeding favored by absolute monarchs.

Another federal judge, Gladys Kessler, spoke sharply from the bench on the constitutional guarantees of open government. "The first priority of the judicial branch must be to ensure that our government always operates within the statutory and constitutional constraints which distinguish a democracy from a dictatorship."

Lawyers Committee Executive Director Michael Posner writes in a preface to the report that its purpose is "to encourage a more robust debate."

Editorial pages have taken note of the mass roundups and the black holes that so many detainees have been pushed into. The Post has taken particular note of Tony Oulai, a 35-year-old Catholic from the Ivory Coast, whom the FBI picked up because he was carrying a stun gun. The G-men misidentified him as an Arab Muslim, but rather than admit they had made a mistake they shuffled him through 12 prisons seeking judges susceptible to national security claims. Finally the FBI charged him with lying to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. He was sentenced to deportation. It is one of those triumphs for small-mindedness that are so easy when secrecy prevails.

The Lawyers Committee report also makes the point that our practices are encouraging scoundrel governments everywhere to claim they are being harassed by terrorists, when in fact they are putting down richly deserved popular uprisings.

All this makes for somber reading at a moment when the president is trying to start a war with Iraq. Try as they have, the cakewalk corps that surrounds Bush cannot connect dots between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, who is still wanted dead or alive.

The president aims to ram a resolution through Congress to authorize war on Iraq before the election. Democrats are scared stiff. If they refuse, they will be accused of failing to recognize a crisis; if they go along, they will pass a new version of the Vietnam War's calamitous Gulf of Tonkin resolution. They have hardly said a word about curtailment of civil liberties. They don't dare open their mouths and say to a popular president, "Are you crazy? Isn't one war enough for you? Couldn't you just pretend to be evenhanded with the Israeli-Palestine question? Loathing of Arafat and affection for Sharon isn't exactly a policy. And if you tried to be fair, you would lower the world's temperature by 50 percent."

Democrats put curbs on their own free speech. It's because they are in a position where, as Franklin Pierce said, "the president himself announces to us that it is treasonable to speak or to write otherwise than as he may prescribe." Things will only get worse unless people speak out.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company