Kerry vs. Ashcroft on Civil Liberties

Politics creates such odd matchups sometimes. Today it’s John Kerry promising not to let John Ashcroft destroy our civil liberties. But a decade ago, as Reason reminds us, it was Kerry who was trying desperately to restrict civil liberties while Ashcroft defended them,

This isn’t the first time Kerry and Ashcroft have been at odds over civil liberties. In the 1990s, government proposals to restrict encryption inspired a national debate. Then as now, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and electronic privacy groups locked horns with the DOJ and law enforcement agencies. Then as now, Kerry and Ashcroft were on opposite sides.

But there was noteworthy difference in those days. Then it was Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) who argued alongside the ACLU in favor of the individual’s right to encrypt messages and export encryption software. Ashcroft “was kind of the go-to guy for all of us on the Republican side of the Senate,” recalls David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

And in what now seems like a bizarre parallel universe, it was John Kerry who was on the side of the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the DOJ. Ashcroft’s predecessor at the Justice Department, Janet Reno, wanted to force companies to create a “clipper chip” for the government—a chip that could “unlock” the encryption codes individuals use to keep their messages private. When that wouldn’t fly in Congress, the DOJ pushed for a “key escrow” system in which a third-party agency would have a “backdoor” key to read encrypted messages.

As late as 1997, Reason notes, Kerry was the first co-sponsor to John McCain’s Secure Public Networks Act which would have created a national key escrow registry and solidified the Clinton ban on encryption exports (they should have called this the Encourage Encryption Offshoring Act).

There’s also this Kerry response to a defense of strong encryption that appeared in Wired, in which Kerry alludes to those murder in the first World Trade Center attack and the Oklahoma City bombing,

[O]ne would be hard-pressed,” he wrote, “to find a single grieving relative of those killed in the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York or the federal building in Oklahoma City who would not have gladly sacrificed a measure of personal privacy if it could have saved a loved one.

I guess he actually voted in favor of sacrificing freedom for security before he voted against it.


John Kerry’s Monstrous Record on Civil Liberties. John Berlau, Reason, July 26, 2004.

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