John Ashcroft is losing it. In a speech last week to the National Restaurant Association, the Attorney General offered up this gem of a one-liner: “No one believes in our First Amendment civil liberties more than this administration.”

To which the only possible answer can be: “What?” Is this the bizarro world? Am I hallucinating here? I certainly can’t believe he actually said that, not after seeing the administration’s calls in The Washington Post and other media outlets for expansion and reaffirmation of the USA PATRIOT Act, one of the more odiously dishonest pieces of legislation passed under the current regime. (And that’s saying something.)

The act, propelled through a compliant Congress less than two months after the events of Sept. 11, has been drawing a fair bit of criticism from politicians as of late, including many of those legislators who voted for the thing sight unseen. Expansion talk was derided by the John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary committee, who was adamant in proclaiming his confidence that “we will continue to say no until Ashcroft explains why he has abused the power he already has.”

Ashcroft has stumped his way across the nation, defending the act in local photo-ops and meet-and-greets, while Bush came up with a not-atypical distortion in defending his work: “Under current federal law, there are unreasonable obstacles to investigating and prosecuting terrorism, obstacles that don’t exist when law enforcement officials are going after embezzlers or drug traffickers.” Well, no. Actually, the drug ‘war’ will possibly receive those powers this fall under the VICTORY Act, Orrin Hatch’s sly attempt to slip a number of objectionable PATRIOT II initiatives through the backdoor of that other great governmental scam. But, no time for that.

The question is whether or not Ashcroft has already abused the powers granted to him. The answer, alas, comes in two parts; the first is “We don’t know,” and the second is “It doesn’t matter.”

First, to our ignorance. We don’t know if the PATRIOT Act has been abused because, in large part, the act has been implemented to function as an impenetrable wall, behind which all the ugliness of the terror war can allegedly be swept. By and large, specific quantitative details about how the act has been implemented are completely unavailable. The results of the government’s ‘Caller ID’ box (which can be turned on whenever the government claims the numbers would be relevant to a terrorism investigation) are classified, as are those of the far more disturbing roving wiretaps. The oft-ignored Section 505, which allows for administrative subpoenas of personal records on any FBI field agent’s say-so, filled five pages of log entries in two years. Too bad each one has been blacked out for security reasons with no further explanation.

Even when Ashcroft deigns to release the results of one of his programs (in this case, the much-ballyhooed library-spying Section 215), he still can’t resist taking a dig at his critics: After a series of hindrances and delays finally gave way to the revelation that Justice had not yet used the specific provision, the AG launched into shockingly base mockery of librarians, whom he accused of “baseless hysteria.” Incredibly, he then followed with a Jeff Foxworthy-style routine to set all law-abiding citizens at ease. (“If you enjoy swapping recipes for chemical weapons from your ‘Joy of Jihad’ cookbook. . .you might be a target of the Patriot Act.”) Gee, I’m glad to see the old guy’s having so much fun.

But in a far more narrow and disquieting sense, the ‘we’ who doesn’t know about the possible excesses of the PATRIOT Act is, in fact, the judiciary. Judges have been removed from significant oversight positions in nearly all of the most troublesome acts (215, 214, 206 and 505, to name a few). Warrants have been completely removed from the equation in most cases, and for those few in which the requirement persists, it is in rubberstamp form. To wit: Section 218 expands use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), previously used to evade warrant and probable cause requirements in a select few cases involving foreign nationals, to include American citizens. The requirements were relaxed; intelligence-gathering now must only be a ‘significant,’ rather than ‘primary’ purpose of the action. And those that think the secret court that authorizes these requests has any compunction about giving the feds free reign should consider that only five of the 14,000-plus requests received by the panel prior to 2001 were denied. Checks and balances, indeed.

The lack of balance evident in PATRIOT is what eventually makes even the enigmatic up-to-date scorecard irrelevant. As presented by its authors, anti-terrorism actions such as these, would call upon Americans to cede some of their civil liberties to the government in exchange for some measure of additional security. But it has become clear that neither ordinary citizens nor the traditional judicial counterweights to Fed excess will ever be able to clearly see the ledger on either side of the equation.

This, of course, is the moment to address such things. Americans have a chance to acknowledge that this contract, lacking in openness and oversight, ought to run its course and be renegotiated – many of these provisions after all, with sunset clauses set for 2005.

A media blitz organized by Washington and fronted locally by oft-unwilling U.S. Attorneys will attempt to convince the populace otherwise. Without acting now, the work of the next two years could bring a future where freedom-loving citizens will have their concerns ridiculed as “castles in the air” by the highest prosecutor in the land.

And if you don’t like that, try to recall Ashcroft’s dulcet promise; that he’s at the forefront of protecting your free speech. Just know that nobody believes that less than me.

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