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Principle over party?

Bob Barr brawls with "Bushies" over terrorism decrees

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Two weeks ago, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists." Ashcroft also warned that "terrorists are taught how to use America's freedoms as a weapon against us."

For Bob Barr -- Georgia congressman, arch-conservative Republican, the man who spearheaded the charge to impeach Bill Clinton -- such charges couldn't be more off-base.

"Domestically, when we're in a non-declared state of war -- and it doesn't matter to me how many times the president or anybody else says we are at war, we are not in a declared state of war -- I don't believe the president can simply sweep the Bill of Rights completely off the table."

To defenders of civil liberties, Ashcroft himself may be the most ardent enemy of America's freedoms. In the days following Sept. 11, as President George W. Bush basked in astronomical poll numbers and Congressional Democrats willingly acquiesced to anything requested by the White House, it must have seemed that no proposal was too intrusive, no restriction too harsh.

But the introduction of controversial measures such as allowing monitoring of attorney-client conversations, pushing for non-citizens to be tried in pseudo-military courts, and pulling in thousands of Middle Eastern men for "voluntary" grillings has drawn a growing chorus of criticism -- some from unlikely sources.

Says Barr: "My concern is not with having tribunals on the battlefield. I have no problem at all with our government dealing with foreign combatants on foreign soil any way they see fit. The president there is clearly operating as commander in chief."

Barr's views have drawn criticism, not the least from the man he'll likely face off against next November, incumbent Rep. John Linder.

"I think Bob is exactly wrong," concludes Linder. "I'm with the president all the way."

At the same time, Barr is finding unlikely friends.

"Bob Barr used to be a U.S. attorney, and he has seen the types of abuses that can occur," says ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Gerald Weber. "I think that has led him to be especially sensitive to unlawful expansions of federal powers. He has previously taken positions against similar actions; that has been a tradition for Bob Barr, and he very sincerely believes that unchecked expansion of governmental power ... has serious long-term implications for citizens."

Barr isn't swayed by historical precedents cited by Bush supporters, who point to wartime instances in which presidents abrogated basic constitutional protections.

"I don't think saying that Franklin Roosevelt did this in 1942 makes it OK in 2001," Barr says. "We were in a declared state of war, and foreign saboteurs were landing on our soil. The other case that's sometimes cited is Lincoln's suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War -- and that was thrown out by the Supreme Court."

Himself a U.S. prosecutor prior to his election to Congress, Barr doubts that the president is even constitutionally granted the power for such sweeping measures.

"No, I do not think the president possesses the authority to do this," he says. "It is not contained in the Resolution of Force that we passed -- that pertains to military force -- and I don't think it's consistent with prior law."

Barr is similarly leery of the definition, or lack thereof, of just what a "terrorist" is under the president's new mandates.

"It's basically whatever the president or secretary of defense decides it is," he says.

"We're saying that, if you happen to be a non-citizen and we charge you with a terrorist offense, we can decide, without telling you why, to prosecute you without any regard for the Bill of Rights. I don't thing that's appropriate. I don't think it's necessary. If somebody can show me that our legal system, cumbersome as it is, isn't working or is incapable of prosecuting terrorists, I might be more amenable. But nobody's done that. Our system works."

The new measures can be remedied, he says, "if Congress has the will. Right now, I don't think they even have the will to ask the questions."

Barr has been increasingly worried since October, when he was among a handful of Republicans voicing fears over the more intrusive provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which granted sweeping detention and search powers to authorities.

Working with congressional Democrats, Barr and others helped soften some of the most problematic sections of the bill, particularly those dealing with secret "sneak-and-peek" searches of suspects' homes and computers, and opening the door to "roving wiretaps."

"I did vote for it," concedes Barr, "not happily, I might add, but simply because there were some good provisions, even though it went further in some areas than I would like."

But "no sooner had the ink dried on that law," he says, "than the administration was coming back and taking additional powers on its own, such as monitoring attorney-client conversations."

And the idea of pulling Middle Easterners in for mass questioning, he says, is frightening. "If the government has evidence that somebody might have some connection with terrorists, they certainly have an obligation to seek those individuals out. But to simply say that an entire population out there ought to be singled out for suspicion is somewhat intimidating."

Barr has been pilloried by fellow Republicans, including some in his own state delegation, as well as by many conservative pundits for his stand.

"That's troubling, because it indicates a lack of sensitivity to the underlying issues," says Barr. "One can disagree, but to simply paint all of us who have substantial concerns over balancing security against civil liberties with this broad brush, does a tremendous disservice to the debate."

Critical congressmen are hardly the only administration detractors. The Libertarian Party USA has blasted the new measures as "recycled police-state style snooping." And in St. Louis, Mo., the CEO of the Council of Conservative Citizens says Barr -- who spoke at a Council convention in the past, only to distance himself from the group when it became a political hot potato -- is right on the money.

"The expansion of police powers," says attorney Gordon Baum, leader of the organization, "has really got a lot of our people alarmed. How the authorities treat people who are not American nationals outside of our borders is one thing. But the expansion in this country is alarming because, if you read it carefully ... there's nothing necessarily limiting this to foreign nationals. It could be used against anybody declared a 'terrorist' or 'threat' or guilty of 'other criminal acts,' whatever that means."

The ACLU has been an ardent critic of the administration moves, and last week filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Justice Department to release the names of Middle Easterners detained since Sept. 11; keeping those identities secret has been defended by Ashcroft on the curious grounds that to divulge their identities would be embarrassing to the detainees.

Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who often votes Republican, last week penned an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution threatening lawmakers who oppose the Bush measures with defeat at the ballot box. Asked whether Barr is worried, press secretary Brian Walsh says his boss -- facing a tough campaign in a newly drawn district against fellow Republican incumbent Rep. John Linder -- is more concerned with principle than polls.

Bold words, particularly since Linder himself sees Barr's position as a liability that definitely will come back to bite him next November.

"It's going to be a campaign issue," vows Linder, "because it gets brought up so very often. Roughly 86 percent of Americans agree with President Bush, including [the issue of] the tribunals; 26 percent beleive he's not going far enough. So Bob is with the 14 percent, I'm with the 86 percent."

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