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'I Can't Just Sit Back'

The moment is still frozen in Ted Olson's mind. The U.S. Solicitor General was sitting in his office-watching with horror the news of the World Trade Center on TV-and fretting about the safety of his wife, Barbara. Barely an hour earlier, he had spoken to her just before she boarded her American Airlines flight to Los Angeles from Washington's Dulles airport. Now Ted Olson was terrified: Could Barbara's plane have been hijacked to New York? Could that have been the one that just crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center? Then the phone rang. It was Barbara calling collect. "My first reaction was, 'Thank God, you're OK'," he recalled.

What happened next-how Barbara Olson, the feisty conservative author and TV pundit, informed her husband that her plane too was being hijacked-has become one of the multitude of harrowing stories that surround the events of Sept. 11. As Olson related to NEWSWEEK, Barbara was calm and collected as she told him how hijackers had used boxcutters and knifes to take control of the plane and had herded the passengers and crew to the back. "Ted, what can I do?" she asked him. "What can I tell the pilot?" Then, inexplicably, she got cut off. Olson frantically called Attorney General John Ashcroft's private line-and got no answer. Olson then called the Justice Department command center: "I want you to know there's another plane that's been hijacked," he told them. "My wife is on it." Barbara called back-and gave still more information: how the plane was circling around and then appeared to be heading in a northeasterly direction. Finally, the line went dead moments before American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

That night, a grieving Olson was surrounded by friends and family at the couple's home in Great Falls, Va. When he finally went upstairs to bed, he found something that Barbara had left him that morning on his pillow. It was a note wishing him a Happy Birthday. It was Olson's 61st.

In the weeks since his wife's death, Olson has sought to channel his grief-and his anger at what the hijackers did-into what he views as a productive purpose: he's become a leading advocate for the Justice Department's current push for broader powers to crack down on terrorists. It is a role that has raised some eyebrows. As chief advocates for the U.S. government before the Supreme Court, Solicitors General have long had a tradition of staying above the political fray-and avoiding lobbying Congress on behalf of legislation they might one day have to defend before the Justices. But Olson says he feels compelled to take a different course. "I have a direct personal stake that people understand," says Olson. Even more, he says, it is a course that he is convinced that his wife would have wanted him to pursue. "I can't just sit back," he said. "I can't just pretend this isn't happening. Barbara and I both always felt that if there was something you can do, you have to do it. We're not spectators."

Last week, Olson-after reviewing the anti-terrorism bill with top Justice officials-accompanied Ashcroft to Capitol Hill when the A.G. testified for the measure. Olson also has defended the proposal on TV talk shows. Among its provisions: easing restrictions on FBI wiretaps, giving the Justice Department new powers to seize assets, and allowing the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists during deportation proceedings. The proposals have drawn criticism from an unlikely coalition of liberal and conservative groups, many of whom fear that Ashcroft and his deputies are using the current crisis to restrict civil liberties. "It's like they went through their desk drawers and just submitted a prosecutors' wish list," charges Grover Norquist of the Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist, who is helping to mobilize conservative opposition to the proposals, insists there is little relationship between some of the Justice proposals and fighting the terrorists who executed the Sept. 11 assault.

But Olson-perhaps the country's best known conservative legal advocate-says he is baffled at the arguments of the opponents. "I don't understand the objections," Olson said. Consider the debate over indefinite detention of illegal aliens the Justice Department is seeking to deport. In the current case, he says, the policy makes sense if the United States has evidence that a deportable alien might have been involved in plotting a terrorism act-such as another hijacking-but lacks the proof needed to bring charges in court. "What are we going to do if we can't convict them?" he asks, noting that even Supreme Court liberals have agreed that "national security" concerns should be taken into account in such circumstances. Olson also emphasizes that the proposals to loosen restrictions on wiretaps and make it easier for prosecutors to use evidence gathered by foreign governments abroad would only change current U.S. statutes-and would not in any way diminish constitutional protections.

Amid his personal grief, Olson also has made another decision that could raise questions from some quarters. After consulting with his late wife's closest friends, he has given the greenlight to Regnery, the conservative publishing house, to proceed with plans to publish the manuscript Barbara Olson finished just before her death. Like her first book, "Hell to Pay," the new tome-entitled "The Final Days: The Last Desperate Abuse of Power by the Clinton White House"-is a fierce attack on Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is due out in a couple of weeks and will include an envelope seeking funds for a Barbara Olson scholarship fund recently set up at her alma mater, the Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University. (It's one of several such posthumous honors: The Federalist Society has just set up a lecture series in her name as well.)

Although the book is sure to stir controversy, Olson said there was never any question that his wife would have wanted it to come out. "For me to tell Barbara that her voice would be silenced because she was murdered by terrorists-I couldn't have lived with myself, and Barbara could not have tolerated that," he said. The book's inscription: "To my best friend, Ted."