Safety... At What Cost?
Attorney General's Role Grew After Sept. 11
By David Johnston and Todd S.
New York Times Service
Published in The International Herald Tribune
"For every crucifixion," John Ashcroft likes to say, "a resurrection is waiting to follow," and, more than most people in Washington, he should know.
Just a year ago, Mr. Ashcroft's future looked grim. He had lost his Senate seat after a single term - to a dead man. He was not close to George W. Bush, whose own election was not yet assured. He was not Mr. Bush's first choice for attorney general, and when offered the job, he had to endure a bruising confirmation at the hands of his old Senate colleagues.
But since Sept. 11, Mr. Ashcroft has emerged as perhaps the most powerful attorney general of modern times, rivaling his ideological opposite Robert Kennedy, despite a relationship with his president that aides to both say remains more professional than personal. Working seven days a week at the center of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign, Mr. Ashcroft has moved swiftly - and sometimes unilaterally - to expand the government's powers to wiretap and detain terrorism suspects and monitor their conversations with their lawyers.
"We frankly go to bed every night asking ourselves, 'Have we done everything we can to protect the liberty and freedom and security of our citizenry?'" Mr. Ashcroft said in a phone interview.
For weeks, Mr. Ashcroft has been in the thick of the war, from the issuance of the order signed by Mr. Bush to prosecute foreign nationals accused of terrorism in extraordinary military tribunals, to day-to-day operations of the FBI. He has been an almost constant presence at the bureau's command center and, with the bureau director, Robert Mueller, has personally directed the investigations of the Sept. 11 and anthrax attacks.
And, even while immersed in the two-front war on terrorism, he has set a new course on other legal policy, beginning a crackdown on the distribution of marijuana for medical purposes in California and threatening the licenses of doctors who prescribe drugs to help patients end their lives under the terms of the assisted-suicide law twice approved by the voters of Oregon.
In the process Mr. Ashcroft, 59, has not only become one of the most activist officials in the history of the Justice Department but also a target for a growing group of critics in both parties who contend that some of the administration's tactics in its war on international terrorism risk threatening civil liberties at home.
"I don't know whether there's a panic," said Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, who heads the Judiciary Committee, "but there's such a sense of concern, either at the Justice Department or at the White House, that they feel they've got to start acting arbitrarily, trying things that have never been tried before."
Mr. Leahy, with his Republican colleague Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, has summoned Mr. Ashcroft to a hearing after Thanksgiving to explain some of his recent anti-terrorism moves. "I don't know anybody on the Hill who feels that some of these things have done anything that has increased our security," Mr. Leahy added.
Mr. Ashcroft insists he has acted in accordance with his legal powers and the Constitution to combat new and troubling threats.
"As we believe steps are available for us to take that are within the statutory authority," he said, "and within the Constitution and the framework of liberties, which we are all responsible for protecting, we're going to adapt our procedures and processes to maximize the security of the American people and reduce the danger of these kinds of terrorist attacks." The deeply conservative son and grandson of evangelical Christian preachers, Mr. Ashcroft has told friends that the terrorist attacks have raised a call he cannot shirk. In a public career that began with a failed Republican primary campaign for Congress from his home state of Missouri in 1972 and eventually led to two terms as state attorney general and two terms as governor before his election to the Senate in 1994, Mr. Ashcroft has often felt underestimated, friends say.
Two years ago, he explored a run for the White House, hoping to galvanize conservative Republicans. He decided against running to concentrate on his re-election to the Senate, but lost in a strange race. Mr. Ashcroft's opponent, Governor Mel Carnahan, was killed in a plane crash shortly before the election, yet narrowly won after the new Missouri governor promised to appoint Mr. Carnahan's widow, Jean, to her husband's seat.
A senior aide said that Mr. Ashcroft regarded himself as a civil libertarian, but one who believes that war forces the government to take aggressive steps to protect civil liberties. Mr. Ashcroft's good friend, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, also said that Mr. Ashcroft had a "strong civil libertarian bent" on issues like Internet privacy and a wariness of government power.
"When he establishes something that grants government power, I know that he's thought it through very carefully," Mr. Kyl said. "He's very well balanced. He's not going to let the extraordinary pressure of this unbalance him to make him something that he's not."