Civil Liberties Watch

Hero to Some

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 19, 2001

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Proving once again to be among the most pleasantly (or frustratingly) unpredictable folks in Washington, Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter has spent the last few weeks speaking out against civil liberties violations in the military tribunals planned by President George Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. While Ashcroft continues to defend the president's right to use tribunals however he sees fit, Specter has been the loudest (and, in some cases, only) voice in his party to question whether such anti-terrorism measures amount to an abuse of executive power. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania spends the bulk of its December Legislative Update praising Specter and his efforts, bestowing upon him an award that is basically the equivalent of Civil Liberties Superstar of the Month. "Since Sept. 11, especially when compared to his colleagues in the Republican Party, he's been raising serious concerns and not just saying that the president can do what he wants to do," says Larry Frankel, executive director of the PA chapter of the ACLU. In a Nov. 28 editorial in the New York Times, Specter chastised the Bush administration for providing "precious little rationale" for ignoring standard rules of justice and due process to carry out military tribunals. "It may be that the executive branch can justify the extraordinary and far-reaching powers called for in the order," Specter writes. "However, even in war, Congress and the courts have critical roles in establishing the appropriate balance between national security and civil rights." According to Frankel, many senators were left feeling rather disarmed at the Senate hearing (which followed the Specter editorial) by Ashcroft's forceful conviction that anyone opposed to military tribunals or other anti-terrorism measures was only aiding terrorists by chipping away at American national unity. But Specter remained unfazed. "At the hearing, he was the only Republican senator to ask even moderately tough questions," Frankel says. "Although maybe he hasn't gone as far as we would, he's been the one person among Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to address these issues." Despite his aggressiveness with Ashcroft, though, Specter's history with civil liberties isn't quite spotless: Both he and Rick Santorum, along with every member of Congress in the Philadelphia area, voted almost two months ago in favor the controversial and well-publicized USA Patriot Act, a bill that gave police and government officials considerably more power to grab hold of phone conversations, e-mails, voice mail messages and confidential records. "His record is better than many of his colleagues, especially in the Republican party," says Frankel, "but it's not perfect. No one's is."

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