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Public Statements

Ending the Era of John Ashcroft

Location: Ames, IA

Remarks by Senator John Kerry

December 01, 2003

Iowa State University

Iowans who use the public library are used to signs being posted on the wall. They might point to the reference desk or remind people to be quiet while inside the building. But, recently, residents of Iowa City who have visited the public library have been greeted with a new sign. It is a sign that tells us that some of what is fundamental to this country - and that we are right to hold dear - is in danger of being taken from us.

The sign reads: "Attention: Under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act…records of all books and materials you borrow from this library, and of Internet sites you visit on library computers, may be obtained by federal agents. This law prohibits librarians from informing you if federal agents have obtained records."

In the past two years, speaker after speaker in this lecture series has focused on the impact of the September 11th attacks. They are right to do so. The War on Terror is the defining issue of our time. It is testing us daily. Testing our strength. Testing our resolve. Testing our patience. Testing our vision. And it is testing our faith in the ideals our nation was founded on.

Equality for every American. Liberty and justice for all. We teach out children that these rights are inalienable. But under the Bush Administration, we are being shown how fragile they really are - and how much they must be defended.

Today, I'd like to speak with you about how I will fight the dangers of terrorism here at home without surrendering the very rights and liberties we are fighting to defend. Because I believe campaigns should be about telling people what they're going to get when they cast their vote for President.

Americans deserve more than a campaign of slogans and sound bites. They deserve substance. They deserve real answers, not just anger. You see, this election is not just about replacing George Bush - it's about changing the direction of our country. People in Iowa don't go to caucus just because they support a candidate. You do it because you love America - and want it to be better. And you deserve to know what I - and every other candidate - would do to make this nation all it should be.

As I talk to people around the country, it's clear there is a broad based fear that the ideologues of this Administration will stop at nothing to get dissenters out of the way. Already, they are summoning the full-power of their communications network - the attack ads, the Ann Coulters, the Sean Hannitys, the Rush Limbaughs - to try to stifle dissent. In the name of the War on Terror, they are attempting to diminish the very rights that define us. They turn civil debate into a shouting match of personal mudslinging that does a disservice to the quality of our democracy. These pretender protectors of our Constitution are trying to intimidate those who dare to speak out. We will not be silenced. We will be heard.

In my first hundred days, I will restore our commitment to civil rights and individual rights. And that will begin with the appointment of an Attorney General whose commitment to and understanding of the Constitution is as great as that of all Americans. An Attorney General who knows we can fight the war on terrorism without attacking America's freedoms. An Attorney General whose name is not John Ashcroft. If I am President, this government will protect individual rights not roll them back. We will protect equal rights, privacy rights, and a woman's right to choose. And we will restore the constitutional foundation of this nation.

Clearly in the War on Terror, we need to be prepared. Information is the most critical weapon we have. We need to be able to get and coordinate that information in a real way. And that means we need a President and an Attorney General who are ready to do that in ways that are consistent with who we are. Americans deserve to know there is some buffer between them and the unbridled power of our government.

After September 11th, this Administration gathered and used broad new powers to investigate the private lives of people in this country. The powers were supposed to be used fight the War on Terror. But George Bush and John Ashcroft have gone beyond that. They have used police powers in secret ways and for political purposes. John Ashcroft has authorized his agents to monitor church meetings and political rallies without any cause and without the need to get approval. Thirteen FAA employees and a high-tech Homeland Security tracking system were used to help Tom Delay track down Texas State Legislators who were resisting his plan to give Republicans more seats in Congress.

And the FBI investigated peaceful demonstrators who spoke out against this Administration's policies in Iraq. I know what it's like to be spied on by the government because it happened to me under Nixon when I came home from Vietnam and said that war was wrong. And one thing we don't need in this country is an Attorney General who spies on Americans.

Consider the story of Barry Reingold. Barry is 61 - a retired phone-company employee who lives in Oakland, California. One day in July of last year, while at his local gym, he got into a heated discussion about George Bush. He didn't say a threatening word and all he did was criticize the President's policies. But soon thereafter he was visited at home by two FBI agents who were investigating his criticisms of the President.

An America that creates a secret police power which can by its secret discretion invade the privacy of Americans and intimidate them is a far cry from what our Founders envisioned and from what we have fought to protect for 228 years.

A country where you are visited by the authorities for thinking or voicing an unpopular idea smacks more of the Taliban than Thomas Jefferson. Trading in our basic rights for the false facade of security is not worth it - and it is not worthy of a great nation such as America.

We are a nation of laws and liberties, not of a knock in the night. So it is time to end the era of John Ashcroft.

That starts with replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time. I've been a District Attorney and I know that what law enforcement needs are real tools not restrictions on American's basic rights.

Much of what is in Patriot Act are good ideas. The Act increased penalties for terrorists, limited the statute of limitations for terrorist crimes, and allowed for greater prosecution of overseas acts against America. I fought to include important money laundering restrictions to clamp down on the cash flowing to terrorist enterprises. I had been pushing for these ideas since the late nineties - and after September 11th they were more important than ever.

I voted for the Patriot Act right after September 11th - convinced that - with a sunset clause - it was the right decision to make. It clearly wasn't a perfect bill - and it had a number of flaws - but this wasn't the time to haggle. It was the time to act.

But George Bush and John Ashcroft abused the spirit of national action after the terrorist attacks. They have used the Patriot Act in ways that were never intended and for reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism. That's why, as President, I will propose new anti-terrorism laws that advance the War on Terror while ending the assault on our basic rights.

This Administration has shown a pattern of abusing civil liberties. At this very moment, an FBI agent could be rifling through every website you've ever visited - and you would never know it. A Justice Department official in Washington could be reading every email you've sent in the last few months - and they wouldn't need a judges permission or even a reason to do so. School librarians could be being placed under gag orders to keep them from speaking out. Federal investigators could be demanding and receiving upon request your private hospital medical records. Law enforcement officers could be entering your house while you are gone - rifling through your possessions - and leaving without every letting you know they had been there.

While the Administration assures us that some of these things have not occurred, no one feels comfortable with these possibilities. It doesn't take a cynic to wonder about how far George Bush and John Ashcroft will go.

Many of the victims of the Bush Administration's civil liberties violations are of Arab-descent - but our Constitution is color-blind. An assault on one person's rights is an assault on this nation's fabric and on all our rights. The Americans threatened when basic rights become treated as disposable are not just those from the Mid East. They're Americans from the Midwest and all over our country.

If I'm elected President, we will put an end to "sneak and peak" searches which permit law enforcement to conduct a secret search and seize evidence without notification. Agents can break into a home or business to take photos, seize property, copy computer files, or load a secret keystroke detector on a computer. These searches should be limited only to the most rare circumstances. And law enforcement should provide notice of the search within seven days, unless a court extends the period of notification.

We will eliminate the potential of fishing expeditions into people's library and business records. If the FBI wants to make these kinds of investigations, they will need a warrant issued by a judge and evidence that they are looking into an agent of a foreign power.

We will provide Americans with protections from wiretaps, prevent local police officers from spying on innocent people, and that ensures our courts guarantee appropriate national security protections.

At the same time, we need to strengthen the laws that actually do help us combat terrorism and keep America safe. This is some of the hard-work of fighting terrorism which the Administration has all too often failed to do. In the months leading up to September 11th, two of the hijackers were arrested for drunk driving-and another was stopped for speeding and then let go even though he was the subject of an arrest warrant in a neighboring county and was on a federal terrorist watch list. Firefighters and law enforcement must have access to critical data so they can connect the dots. And we need to simplify and streamline the 58 national terrorist watch lists and make sure they're available to the right people on the frontlines.

Four of the five terrorists who crashed an airliner into the Pentagon had false IDs. If teenagers trying to buy beer can falsify IDs, can we be surprised when terrorists can fake driver's licenses and visas? It's time for a new generation of smart driver's licenses and IDs that use encrypted technology so they can't be forged. Instead of the assault on our civil liberties that John Ashcroft is waging, we need to rely on new technology that can protect our privacy and our county at the same time. We need to reform our intelligence agencies so they collect, analyze and share all the relevant information they can about the terrorist threat.

Many of this Administration's abuses of civil liberties have nothing to do with the Patriot Act. That's especially true of the hundreds of people that have been detained without explanation and without real cause. John Ashcroft's Justice Department has been so arrogant and reckless in detaining people that even the Department's Inspector General has cried foul. 762 people - Arabs and Muslims - were detained, sometimes for many months, regardless of the evidence. Most were never charged with a real crime. Not one was charged in relation to the terrorism probe. But the average wait for the FBI to clear a detainee for deportation was 80 days, with some waiting as long as eight months. In numerous cases, people not accused of any crime were locked down 23 hours a day, sometimes in solitary confinement, and shackled when outside their cells.

Nacer Fathi Mustafa and his father, American citizens of Palestinian descent, were stopped by immigration agents in Houston on their way back home from a business trip to Mexico. They were arrested and charged with altering their passports. The authorities finally decided that there, in fact, was nothing wrong with their passports. After they had been held in a Texas jail for 67 days. John Ashcroft calls the policy "hold until cleared." That's just a fancy way of saying "guilty until proven innocent." It is at odds with everything America's justice system should be about - and it is wrong.

Americans have a right to expect more from their government. And a right to know what is happening in their country. We are a democracy after all - and in this country it is the people that rule. Yet, President Bush first resisted the pleas to appoint the bipartisan 9/11 commission and now that it is at work, the commission's leaders - Republicans and Democrats alike - are reporting that the President, John Ashcroft, and other officials are blocking their requests for essential information. Each additional day of stonewalling is another day that all Americans are at increased risk. Our very security is at stake and this isn't the time for the same-old political cover-up. It's time to find the truth, face the truth, and tell the truth. If I am President, we will end this Administrations reign of secrecy and inform the American people about what actions are being taken to fight the War on Terror.

The story of America is the story of people like Fawaz Ismail. His Palestinian parents came to America from Jordan when he was nine years old. Twenty-five years ago, he began selling American flags from the back of his Volkswagen bus because he loved what the flag stood for. Today, he is the largest retailer of flags in America.

After September 11th, people lined up for half a mile outside his stores. He sold half a million flags in a week and donated a portion of the earnings to the families of the victims.

But a few days after the attack, he was leaving a restaurant on a Saturday afternoon when sirens began to scream. The police officer told him it was just a routine check. But he knew that the only reason he was pulled over was because of his ethnicity. When law enforcement wastes resources on those who have done nothing wrong - it makes it harder to track down those who are truly dangerous.

America deserves leaders that are more concerned with prosecuting the War on Terror, than persecuting those who disagree with them or those of a certain ethnic background. No one will be stronger in defending this nation than I, but we are better than secret and indefinite detentions. We are better than the physical abuse of prisoners who don't have the slightest connection to terrorism. And there is a better way to security than racial or religious or ethnic profiling.

This debate is not just about laws on the books or the abuses of one official. It is about who we are as a people. When the President runs attack ads claiming Democrats are opposed to the War on Terror it is an assault on our very patriotism. When a hero like Max Cleland - who lost three limbs in Vietnam - is defeated for reelection to the Senate with Republican ads that say he lacks courage, it is an assault on basic decency. The America we believe in doesn't quiet dissent - it encourages it. That's the America I and others fought for. The America so many of us have marched for. We won't let them keep us quiet. We will speak up. We will stand up. We will never give up on the fight for the America we deserve.

America deserves more from its leaders. They deserve leadership equal to the courage Americans show everyday. That courage can change this country and transform the world. It can give us a government that values democracy and preserves our rights. It can protect our country and our liberties. It can end the era of John Ashcroft and renew our faith in the Constitution. Fawaz Ismail's flags fly on posts all over America. Let's join together to make sure that flag represents the best of us - and that it represents all of us. Thank you.

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