JUST WHEN we thought the Bush administration's assault on our constitutional protections had begun to subside comes news that Attorney General John Ashcroft is prepared to go even further.
The Justice Department over the last several months has prepared draft legislation - the USA Patriot Act II - that expands the war on terrorism in dangerous ways. It enlarges many of the controversial provisions in the first USA Patriot Act, which passed Congress in the shocking days after Sept. 11.
Overnight, that bill weakened constitutional safeguards that took us decades to build. This bill, if enacted in its present form, would do even worse damage. By giving itself unprecedented power to wiretap citizens, detain people in secret, revoke citizenship and disseminate citizens' confidential information, the administration has trained its sights not only on terrorists but on the very freedom it purports to uphold.
After all, it was President Bush who famously admonished us that we should not let the terrorists win by changing our open, free society and that we should live normally, go on about our business, travel and spend money. Many of us heeded his advice, albeit somewhat anxiously.
But the administration did not respond in kind. Instead of upholding America's great tradition of respecting the rule of law, it has decided that no power is too great. Consider some of what is in Patriot II:
Wiretapping individuals for 15 days, without consulting a judge, if the government declares a national emergency.
Sampling and cataloguing genetic information without court order and without consent.
Permitting and encouraging the dissemination of confidential, sensitive information about citizens' credit cards and educational records among federal, state and local law enforcement officials.
Encouraging people to spy on one another by giving businesses blanket immunity to phone in false terrorism tips, even if done with reckless disregard for the truth.
Prohibiting the release of information about people the government has detained, even if they have not been charged with a crime, by creating loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act.
Stripping Americans of their citizenship if they associate with an organization that the Justice Department unilaterally determines to be related to terrorism.
And this is just a sampling.
The problem with the administration's approach is not its vigor - people from all racial, political and religious groups want to bring terrorists swiftly to justice - but its overreach and its vast potential for abuse. Preventing abuse is the reason we have constitutional checks and balances in the first place.
All al-Qaida members caught in the United States should be investigated and dealt with. But what about the innocent people who, because of law enforcement's mistakes, incompetence or prejudice, end up as "suspected" terrorists? Once suspected of terrorism, constitutional protections evaporate, leaving people in fear and subject to harm.
Hundreds of people with no connection to terrorism have been detained and deported in secret since 9/11 without access to counsel. Too many innocents are being caught in the web.
It was not so long ago that this nation went down a very slippery slope. Hindsight makes the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and the FBI's ruthless prosecution of civil rights leaders in the 1960s and 1970s universally condemned. We must be mindful of those lessons today.
Thankfully, these concerns are not limited to one side of the political spectrum. Bipartisan majorities have emerged that are deeply skeptical of the Justice Department's power grab during this period of national anxiety.
Some of the loudest voices denouncing the administration have been powerful Republicans, including columnist William Safire and former conservative congressmen Dick Armey of Texas and Bob Barr of Georgia. And Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York termed Patriot II "little more than the institution of a police state."
President Bush and Mr. Ashcroft have not formally introduced Patriot II to Congress and the public. But as they deliberate, perhaps they should heed their own advice. Don't let the terrorists win. Keep America safe and free. We like America, and the Constitution, just the way it is.
Rajeev Goyle is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.