Last fall, not long after six Yemeni-Americans were arrested in the Buffalo,
NY suburb of Lackawanna on terrorism charges, I nearly crossed paths with John
Ashcroft. I was living in Buffalo at the time, and Ashcroft was making a semi-clandestine
visit to the city to address local Justice Department officials about the case
and other matters. And this address took place in my building.
of a newspaper where I was working at the time was located in the Statler Towers,
formerly a grand luxury hotel but now, like everything else in Buffalo, a shimmering
monument to the spectacular failure of municipal vision that has been the proud
cornerstone of that city’s collective identity for almost 100 consecutive
years. Ashcroft was addressing his troops in a washed-out, The Shining-esque
ballroom on the first floor, directly above a barbershop last visited in 1973,
and 15 floors below the beer-can-strewn office I kept upstairs, across the hall
from the local ACLU.
I was on
my way into the office that day when I caught the ACLU contingent in a panic,
turning their office upside down. They were like priests scouring the belfry
for garlic after hearing word that Dracula had strolled in and taken a seat
at a pew downstairs. "Fucking John Ashcroft is here," one of the guys
whispered to me, hands trembling. "We’ve got to get downstairs…
Get a look at him."
So we went
down. The meeting was closed, but the attorney general was visible through the
glass doors of the ballroom, his brow furrowed and mouth seemingly fixed in
a letter O as he held forth. When I tried to get a little closer to get a picture,
a Secret Serviceman stopped me–and proceeded to interrogate me and the
two ACLU types, one of whom was a bespectacled older woman nearing 70.
do you want?" the SS man asked.
just wanted to take a look," I answered.
ID. The ACLU folks explained who they worked for. The SS man had never heard
of the ACLU. He peered at us.
going to have to stand back," he said. "We have to take precautions,
in case you were thinking of throwing acid on the attorney general."
my head, stunned and amused. "In case we decided to throw acid on the attorney
general? Specifically in case of that?"
right," he said, folding his arms, "In case you decided to throw acid
at the attorney general."
up, and finally were backed out of sight. I’d hoped to get within smelling
distance of Ashcroft, but I never got to see him again at all. I wondered whether
people often tried to throw acid on Ashcroft, or whether this particular SS
man was just insane. Both were very provocative possibilities. I’ll never
know the truth; the only clues to the mystery of the inner John Ashcroft are
the ones he offers himself. Of course, those are strange enough.
back in Buffalo. I came up a few weeks ago to watch the last of those terror
suspects, Yassein Taher and Mukhtar al-Bakri, plead out to seven- to 10-year
Six case was held in Buffalo, despite the fact that the root crime–material
assistance to a foreign terrorist organization–occurred outside the United
States, in Afghanistan. No one, least of all Attorney General Ashcroft, disputed
the idea that the U.S. had jurisdiction over this crime. When an American citizen
violates American laws overseas, the thinking goes, American justice cannot
be too zealous. Hard to argue with that.
John Ashcroft himself argued exactly that. In a move that received almost no
press in the U.S. (the New York Times, busy with the Jayson Blair business,
blew it off), Ashcroft recently filed an amicus curiae (friend of the
court) brief on behalf of the California-based energy company Unocal, which
was facing suit in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California. The case–and
the brief–say just about everything you need to know about John Ashcroft.
case is the kind of story that ought to get more press in the U.S., but never
does. In 1992, the company, along with the French oil company Total, entered
into an agreement with the governments of Myanmar and Thailand to build a natural-gas
pipeline from the offshore Yadana field to neighboring Thailand. Of course,
finding labor in a Jeffersonian paradise like the former Burma is problematic,
so Unocal and Total did the logical thing: They relied on labor "contracted"
by the Myanmar army, a progressive bunch if there ever was one, to build the
to Myanmese villagers who brought the original suit, the army, with the knowledge
of both companies, used forced labor, compelled to work under the threat of
rape, torture and even execution, in providing security for the project. A U.S.
District judge later agreed; though he dismissed the case for jurisdictional
reasons in 2000, Judge Ronald Lew in California ruled that Unocal knew about
and benefited from the forced labor. A higher court later overturned Lew’s
dismissal and ruled that Unocal could be held liable for damages in the case,
if the defendants’ assertions were proved at trial. Thus the current case.
suit cites one of America’s oldest laws, the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA).
Passed by the first Congress in 1789, it holds that foreign citizens can bring
suits in the United States for abuses "committed in violation of the law
of nations or a treaty of the United States." The law was designed to prevent
the U.S. from becoming a safe haven for pirates.
us to Ashcroft. In his brief, he argued that ATCA should not be used in civil
cases, and that the "law of nations" outlined in the act should not
be interpreted to include human-rights treaties. Ashcroft didn’t file a
brief specifically in defense of Unocal; he filed a brief against the very idea
that foreigners should be allowed to apply to U.S. courts for redress when international
laws are violated. Moreover, he wrote, such litigation "bears serious implications
for our current war against terrorism, and permits [ATCA] claims to be easily
asserted against our allies in that war."
So a kid
from a Buffalo ghetto travels to Afghanistan, visits a terrorist training camp
and comes home. Before he commits any crime, he goes to jail for 10 years. Even
the government admits there was no overt violent crime here: "Material
assistance to a foreign terrorist organization" was stretched to include
the purchase of a uniform at the camp. But if an American company goes overseas
and for six years invests millions of dollars and uses slave labor and torture
to build some miserable gas pipeline–committing not one crime, but many
hideous violent crimes, at a systemic level–it shouldn’t even be sued,
according to our attorney general.
week, a seventh Lackawanna suspect, Jaber Elbaneh, was indicted by the Justice
Department. He’s overseas somewhere. There would have been an eighth named
Kamal Derwish, but he was killed last year in a CIA missile attack in Yemen.
In Iraq and everywhere else, the whole world has been informed that it is subject
to U.S. law. With a few exceptions.