Drug War Redux

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and an army of Justice Department officials have descended on Congress this week, lobbying hard for a utility belt of new police powers that they say would allow them to fight the critical war on terrorism. Disturbingly, Ashcroft’s rhetoric reveals an ignorance of the immediate past instead of a vision for the future.
In an attempt to show just how benign the War on Terror will be for law-abiding citizens, Ashcroft has chosen an odd model: the War on Drugs. At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Ashcroft repeatedly said that the tools in the fight against terrorism should be at least as strong as the ones used to fight gambling, organized crime, and illegal (“illicit” in government parlance) substances. Law enforcement officials, he said, should be able not only to freeze terrorists’ assets, but seize them–“Just like we have for those individuals involved in drug trafficking.”

There isn’t a single person in Washington, DC who would object to seizing Osama bin Laden’s fortune. On the other hand, Ashcroft seemed unaware that more than a few people have objected to civil asset forfeiture and the escalating power it has given police agencies. In fact, widespread concerns over racial profiling, bans on computer encryption, and the increasing U.S. military presence in South America — all concerns that have striking parallels in the new fight against terrorism — have forced many people to rethink their position on the drug war.

This is not a knee-jerk libertarian response. The “In Defense of Freedom Coalition,” an ad hoc group of more than 150 organizations concerned about Ashcroft’s new grab for power, is a prime example. Cobbled together in the week following the terrible attacks on September 11, groups signing on include everyone from the liberal ACLU to Phyllis Schlafly’s arch-conservative Eagle Forum. If the startling display of left-right unity surprises Ashcroft, he wasn’t paying very close attention in the days before the attack.

Indeed, a strikingly similar coalition gathered on September 10 to present a united front against invasive policing in the War on Drugs — the very war Ashcroft now raises as a model in the fight against bin Laden and associates. With 63 participants it was smaller, but just as diverse: The Eagle Forum and ACLU also took part in that effort, which called itself the Coalition for Constitutional Liberties. A driving force behind both coalitions was the super-conservative Free Congress Foundation.

If Ashcroft hadn’t personally heard of the Coalition for Constitutional Liberties, the Senate Judiciary Committee certainly had. On September 10, the group delivered a letter to the committee — the same leaders Ashcroft addressed this Tuesday — begging members to consider privacy issues before approving John Walters to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The hearing was scheduled to take place at 10 a.m. on Sept. 11. I was standing in line to attend it when the Senate Hart Office Building was evacuated.

Ashcroft’s comparison aside, there are important differences between the War on Terrorism and the War on Drugs. Terrorists can deliver a violent payload in ways that drug-addled teens never could. Many people oppose invasive policing in the War on Drugs because they think the war itself is fundamentally wrong; no one, not even left-leaning commentators who think U.S. actions abroad brought on the attack, thinks terrorism can continue unopposed.

Perhaps what is similar between the two wars is the reaction by civil libertarians. People across the political spectrum fear that increased police powers will lead us down the path of oppression. As this battle unfolds, Ashcroft should keep in mind that people are listening very closely to his words, and that the words he chooses are critical.

By raising the specter of the War on Drugs–a costly, failed national effort that has landed legions of American minorities behind bars and forced millions more to sacrifice civil liberties bit by bit — he is doing little to inspire confidence in a national police force bolstered with wide-ranging new powers. It certainly doesn’t help when the U.S. attorney general admits, as he did this Tuesday, that even if the tools he is asking for were in place prior to Sept. 11, security officials might not have been able to stop the deadly attacks.

People deserve a national effort that will fight terror effectively, not the same tired drug-war rhetoric they have seen fail for years.

Sam MacDonald ([email protected]) is REASON’s Washington editor.
Reason Magazine www.reason.com
In Defense of Freedom Coalition: www.indefenseoffreedom.org