Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) has become the anti-Bush poster child of Democratic presidential candidates and the left-wing activists who greatly influence their party's nominating process.
He has earned this dubious distinction by his authorship of -- and courageous advocacy for -- the post -- Sept. 11 counter-terrorism measure known as the USA Patriot Act.
It is not hard to understand why President Bush's opponents want to make a political pinata out of the man so closely identified with what is, arguably, the administration's single most important home-front achievement to date in the war on terror: namely, dramatically improving law enforcement and intelligence collaboration and capabilities for defeating terrorist organizations. By savaging the Attorney General and working to undo the Patriot Act (search), Democrats hope simultaneously to mobilize their base while diminishing the president's credibility as a wartime leader.
What is utterly mystifying, however, is why the man most responsible for the Bush reelection strategy would seemingly be encouraging such attacks on Mr. Ashcroft -- and, indirectly at least, on the president he serves?
Such a question arises from the increasingly prominent and controversial role being played in the anti-Ashcroft/Patriot Act campaign by Grover Norquist (search), a veteran GOP activist who claims to be a close confidant to Mr. Bush's political guru, Karl Rove (search).
For example, as Byron York reported in National Review Online (search) on Oct. 20, Norquist was a featured participant in a Washington-area conference last weekend "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.'"
York noted that "Much of the support for the conference came from the American Civil Liberties Union (search), which has conducted a long campaign against the Patriot Act. The panel on which [actor Alec] Baldwin, [leftist activist Ralph] Neas, Norquist, and [American Conservative Union (search) president David] Keene appeared was sponsored by People for the American Way (search). Attendees were given a copy of the group's new report,"Two Years After 9/11: Ashcroft's Assault on the Constitution."
Particularly troubling was the observation in the National Review article that Norquist made no effort to disassociate himself from or otherwise to correct the record when participants made patently untrue charges about the Patriot Act ("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.")
The ACLU-sponsored event was hardly the only instance in which Norquist endeared himself to the Left by calling into question the legitimacy of the Patriot Act and impugning the motives of its drafters and enactors. In its May 6 edition, the left-wing newspaper The Village Voice quoted him as saying, "I would vote against any legislation somebody felt they had to name 'Patriot.' [Which no one would have felt the need to do] if it were a worthwhile bill. [That name] was used to mau-mau people because it looks bad on a 30-second commercial to have voted against it."
It is hard to overstate the value Norquist's "center-right" credentials have provided in the way of political cover to the Left's agenda. Without his active participation in efforts to distort, delegitimize, curb or dismantle the Patriot Act, the president's critics would find it far more difficult to represent their critique as one that enjoys support across the political spectrum. Such claims have, in turn, been indispensable to legislative attempts to weaken the act and to prevent any Bush Administration efforts to strengthen it further.
Particularly troubling is the fact that among the groups intent on taking down the Patriot Act and the Attorney General who wields it are various organizations sympathetic to radical Islamic sects and associated "Islamist" terrorist groups. Officials from several of these organizations have been arrested in recent months on charges of actually having ties to terrorism.
For example, Sami al-Arian (search) allegedly ran Palestinian Islamic Jihad (search) from his post as a professor at South Florida University until his arrest a few months ago. Up to that point, Al-Arian was the president of a very dubious organization, National Coalition to Protect Political Freedoms (search) (NCPPF), which was among the organizational participants in last weekend's anti-Patriot Act conference.
Interestingly, NCPPF gave Grover Norquist an award in 2001 for his work to deny law enforcement the use of "secret evidence," an important tool for prosecuting terrorists in cases involving sensitive, classified information. Norquist has also reportedly used his ties to Karl Rove to assist pro-Islamist members of the Coalition to secure repeated access to White House and other senior Administration officials, including on several occasions, President Bush himself.
The question recurs: What is going on here? Does the president's top political advisor want to see the nation's top law enforcement officer vilified and made less effective? This conclusion is inescapable -- if inexplicable -- as long as Karl Rove continues to allow Grover Norquist simultaneously to play a leading role in assaulting a Patriot Act for which President Bush, not Attorney General Ashcroft, bears ultimate responsibility, while portraying himself as a trusted lieutenant and non-governmental surrogate for the White House political operation and its boss, Karl Rove.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. held senior positions in the Reagan Defense Department. He is currently president of the Center for Security Policy.