It’s been nearly three weeks since the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and a standing-room-only crowd has gathered in an auditorium at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, to hear the state’s two senators, Independent James Jeffords and Democrat Patrick Leahy, talk to their constituents about the war on terrorism. Even though Vermont is a minuscule state with a bite-size population that endorses a huggy, Ben and Jerry’s-style liberalism, Leahy and Jeffords have remarkable influence in Washington. This is due largely to the fact that last summer, when Jeffords defected from the Republican Party, tossing control of the Senate to the Democrats, he also cleared the way for Leahy to replace Utah paleo-con Orrin Hatch as head of the judiciary committee. Consequently, as Jeffords modestly ambles to the podium, the crowd begins to whoop, cheer and clap. Moments later, Leahy enters to an enthusiastic but slightly more subdued welcome.
Leahy is at the center of the first great political battle of the post-September 11th era. At a time when deviating from the administration line has become all but forbidden, Leahy stood up to throw a wrench in the package of anti-terrorism laws proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Ashcroft’s bill alarmed civil libertarians, as it called for a great expansion in law enforcement’s ability to obtain search warrants, monitor e-mail and detain suspects. “I did what I did to make Pat Leahy head of the judiciary committee,” Jeffords says from the stage, half-joking. “I have nightmares thinking about what would happen if we had the alternative.”
Would you discuss the broad contours of the attorney general’s proposals?
These would have allowed anybody, a small-town police officer, for instance, to go in and automatically get a subpoena to track a suspect through cyberspace – it could be no more than the fact that he didn’t like your looks. I’m not giving that power to anybody, for any reason. Especially as it wouldn’t have done us any good in this case. To John Ashcroft’s credit, he did admit that if he’d had every single tool he’d asked for, there was nothing in his proposals that would have stopped the events of the 11th from happening.
Congress has really lined up behind the administration. Was it difficult speaking up?
I got a lot of pressure when I first started, from both the Republicans and the Democrats, saying, “You can’t hold this up! The president wants these laws passed by Friday!” and I said, “No, we’re going to look at them.” This country has never benefited itself by having a “Big Brother is watching you” atmosphere, and we are not going to do that here.
The right wing is speaking up, too. When you see Bob Barr and Barney Frank get together and say, We disagree with the administration on this, and the NRA and Phyllis Schlafly joined with the ACLU and the gay and lesbian coalition, then you know there are some issues in there.
Do you think that law enforcement needs much greater powers?
Billions of dollars have been put into wiretaps. There was an unlimited amount of money and FBI agents available when Kenneth Starr wanted to investigate Monica Lewinsky. Look how much effort was spent going back to look at every one of President Clinton’s pardons, even though the president has total, unfettered power to pardon anybody he wants.
But how much was being done to protect the World Trade Center, considering the fact that eight years ago they already bombed it? These are going to be legitimate questions. But this idea that somehow if we just throw our Constitution overboard, then we’re safe, that doesn’t work.
In the long run, do you think there will be popular support to curtail civil liberties?
Benjamin Franklin once said, A people who would trade liberty for security deserve neither. I think we can have both. We can keep our liberties, we can have our security. The biggest mistake we’ve made is to rush pell-mell into something and take away our constitutional rights.