Michael Chertoff, Ashcroft’s Top Gremlin


I have been watching John Ashcroft so long that it is getting to be a little boring. Promising to use all available means to “fight terrorism,” prosecuting every violation of law “to the fullest extent of the law,” desperately wanting the death penalty for every possible offense, and, according to his remarks last week before the Senate Judiciary committee, wanting laws changed to impose the death penalty for even more offenses. Ashcroft changes law and procedure by signing Executive Orders, and yes, he can get away with that unless a court stops him. So far, no court has. Some congressional members, damn few, express mild dismay at his tactics, such as locking up resident aliens after 9/11 and holding some of them for months without access to family or lawyers (or charges), then deporting many on the most technical visa violations (some of them the fault of INS, over which he has authority). It never ends-the Ashcroft watch. It only gets worse, and more frightening.

But now I have a new gremlin to watch, someone who is as intent on undermining the law and Constitution as Ashcroft. I am referring to the man behind the criminal prosecution of terrorists, Michael Chertoff. Chertoff, former chief of the Justice Department’s criminal division, and a scary looking guy if ever there was one, has been elevated to the level of Court of Appeals judge–the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. What’s so scary about Michael? Well, besides having no judicial experience and being a right-ring radical who does not believe in the Constitution and wants to rewrite federal law and rules of procedure on an ad hoc, case by case basis, as it suits him, nothing I guess.

A good place to look for Chertoff’s legal philosophy is in the prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui , now taking place in the Eastern District of Virginia. Chertoff is not the prosecutor of course, Paul McNulty of the Eastern District is. But Chertoff is McNulty’s boss and he is calling the shots. So Chertoff argued the government’s case in the super secret hearing before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals last week. The government is trying to block trial judge Leonie Brinkema’s ruling that Moussaoui and his lawyers have access to the government’s star witnesses against him. The government has refused and appealed. Judge Brinkema, who still believes in the Constitution, rightly ruled that to deny Moussaoui that access is a blatant violation of the Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses.

Brinkema indicates that she will not be a party to making exceptions to the Constitution on a case-by-case basis. She, in effect, suggests that maybe Justice better take Moussaoui to Guantanamo and try him there in secret, in the military tribunals they set up. Easy there to not only try him, but convict him, and execute him . So why is the government insisting on keeping him in federal court?

I have the answer, and it lies in Chertoff. Chertoff’s goal, I believe, and the goal of Ashcroft and Bush in supporting this prosecution in federal court, is to subject federal trials, as they see fit, to ad hoc exemptions of whatever laws (be they constitutional, criminal code, or rules of procedure) that will suit their purposes. Their grand scheme is to ultimately cripple and dismantle the federal courts as we know them, one brick at a time.

Support for this theory of mine includes their prosecution of attorney Lynne Stewart, for, in effect, zealously representing her client; rules created by Ashcroft that subject attorneys and their clients to surveillance, be they under secret wiretaps issues by the secret FISA court or monitoring of all contacts in prison settings. These procedures came about by fiat from Ashcroft. They make any attorney who represents someone charged with an act of “terrorism” (and a terrorist crime is one defined by Bush and Ashcroft-that is an ad hoc determination, as well).

The Moussaoui case has many examples of legal changes. Moussaoui and even his attorneys (!) cannot receive all documents related to the case, because of “national security” interests. Witnesses may appear in court behind screens (!) so that they cannot be seen. And, the Fourth Circuit hearing last week was closed-closed-for the first time in history. Under Ashcroft we have had secret warrants (or no warrants), secret hearings denying bail, secret trials, and now secret appellate court arguments. Next, we can expect the Supreme Court to be closed, can’t we?

The 4th Circuit hearing was close to all but those “screened” and approved by the Justice Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA. The judge presiding over the hearing told the “security” official to jump up if any attorney arguing the case said anything that would jeopardize national security-so that the room could be cleared! Then, as will happen in a trial, the government can proceed out of the presence of the defendant or his attorney. Oh, of course, Moussaoui was not allowed to be at the appellate hearing last week. How is that for a legal system.

Chertoff argued to the 4th Circuit that the Court could not order the government to produce its start witness against Moussaoui because (are you ready?) he, the witness, is out of the country at an undisclosed location. True, but the witness is in the custody of the federal government! The out-of-the country argument is a sham. This is similar to a ruling recently by the federal court that ruled that Guantanmo Bay prisoners had no access to federal courts for claims that they be charged or release because-they are out of the country!! Of course, in federal custody, but that does not matter.

The absurd arguments contrary to the letter and spirit of all that not only the Constitution, but current federal law provides, is appalling and shameful. Chertoff will be making those arguments for the government when they appear before his court (and if you think that appellate judges don’t make arguments, you did not hear Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist make Bush’s arguments for his attorney, not Solicitor General Ted Olson. And you have not read the rulings of the Fourth Circuit when it denied an American citizen, Yasir Hamdi, the right to see a lawyer. He is locked up in some military brig. He has not been charged with a crime and has been in custody for close to a year. The opinion was a political treatise, not a legal argument. And the treatise-opinion supported the government’s argument that courts step back and not conduct meaningful judicial review or, heaven forbid, overrule the government in a time of “war.” And that treatise said that the “war” on terror will only be over when the President says it is over, and that the “front” of the war may change from time to time. When the “front” changes, then the government may tighten up surveillance and arrests on that “battleground,” which could be Alexandria, Virginia or any city in the country.

This same court will rule on Moussaoui’s right to have access to a witness who, by all counts, may help his case and hurt the government. If the 4th Circuit rules that the witness may not be produced, federal law, procedure, and the Constitution will have been violated to support the Bush-Ashcroft agenda. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Michael Chertoff with hardly an argument (though they did conduct an “investigation” into charges that he engaged in some misconduct while at DOJ, which turned up nothing, or so we are told).

Keep your eye on Michael Chertoff. As bad for the law and Constitution as many of Bush’s judicial appointees are, Chertoff has been the architect of prosecutions in the “war on terror.” And he may have big changes in mind for you, me, the courts, and the Constitution.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teaches law and psychology, and writes Civil Liberties Watch under the auspices of The City Pages. She can be reached at: ecassel1@cox.net