AUSTIN, Texas -- Sometimes I forget how truly simpleminded the Bushies can be. The front-page of The New York Times reports, "The Bush administration seems to accept and even relish (Attorney General) Ashcroft's role as lightning rod on difficult criminal justice issues."

Since the attorney general has so amply demonstrated his clueless incompetence, it may seem difficult to plumb why it should be so. But it is precisely, you see, because liberals consider John Ashcroft a dangerous nincompoop that the administration thinks he's doing a good job. They really are that simple.

In the Texas Legislature, the press occasionally gives the If-He-Votes-Yes, I-Vote-No Award for some egregious example of this particular strain of non-thinking. Any halfway smart politician loves to have another pol in this position. That's when you introduce a resolution in favor of Motherhood just to watch the other guy vote against it.

It takes no great detective to see the pattern here. Before Sept. 11, Bush's entire foreign policy consisted of being Not Clinton. If Clinton was for something, Bush was against it, and vice versa. This did not, you may have noticed, lead to an effective foreign policy.

Likewise, most people had difficulty understanding why the administration was so set on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge when it didn't make any sense. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates 3.2 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil, which would at most reduce our foreign dependence by a couple of percentage points. We can save twice that with a tiny improvement in fuel mileage, which the Bushies opposed. It's just dumb to drill there, and the enviros were in a snit about it.

Precisely. It was because the enviros were in a total snit that the Bushies felt they were doing the right thing. Unfortunately, this is 4-year-old thinking.

Because John Ashcroft has become a bugbear for liberals, the Bushies assume he must be doing something right. Not necessarily.

As David Cole reports in The Nation, "To date, despite the thousands of Arab and Muslim immigrants arrested, searched, profiled and questioned, Ashcroft has charged only a single person -- Zacarias Moussaoui -- with any involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11. And he was arrested before the attacks occurred. Such broad-brush tactics are unlikely to succeed, for they give notice to potential targets, allowing them to evade detection while alienating the very communities we must work with to identify potential threats who may be living among them."

Ashcroft is still "detaining" -- such a nice euphemism -- - hundreds of non-citizens on immigration charges, even though many of those charges have been resolved. Under Ashcroft's orders, they are being tried in secret proceedings closed to all outside observers.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds has declared the closed proceedings unconstitutional, and Superior Court Judge Arthur D'Italia of New Jersey, calling the secret arrests "odious to a democracy," has ordered the INS to release the names of those detained.

Ashcroft's prosecution of Lynne Stewart, the New York lawyer who has bravely defended some terribly unpopular clients, is a mystery. She is not charged with furthering any illegal or violent activity. Ashcroft has also made prosecution of Massaoui more difficult by insisting on the death penalty. We knew in advance that meant France would not cooperate by releasing information that could lead to the death penalty. It's all very well to sit around and gritch about the French, but it doesn't get us any forwarder.

Then we have this ludicrous situation at Gitmo, where we now say we may keep these people locked up even if they are acquitted of whatever charges are finally leveled against them. A permanent policy of imprisonment without conviction or even trial -- that's worse than stupid, it's horrible.

The administration has already backed down from its original position and will now require public trials, unanimous votes for the death penalty and some review. But they insist they can put you in a dungeon forever and they never have to say why. It's like the old French lettre de cachet that used to figure as plot device in potboilers like "The Count of Monte Cristo." One can only conclude the problem is the administration has no idea what to do with these prisoners.

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