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Archive for Sunday, December 23, 2001

A.G. under the gun in war against terror

December 23, 2001

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— On Sept. 12, the day after America was attacked, President Bush turned to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and said:

"Never let this happen again."

A year after he lost a Senate race in Missouri to an opponent who was deceased, Ashcroft is bearing a double-barreled burden unremitting criticism for how he's carrying out the president's order and unrelenting pressure to carry it out successfully.

Every day, he rises early at his Capitol Hill townhouse and rides to work in a black sport-utility vehicle through dark streets. He huddles with CIA and law enforcement officials, and at 8:30 a.m., he briefs the president.

Ashcroft had led the Justice Department for eight months when the world changed. He was getting his arms around Justice's $2.1 billion bureaucracy, still filling key posts.

The terrorist attacks a catastrophic intelligence breakdown made all the other challenges seem minor.

"I have a responsibility to prevent additional terror attacks," Ashcroft said. "And that's a very large responsibility."

In an interview in his Justice Department office, Ashcroft talked about life at the head of the U.S. domestic war on terrorism. He revealed his sources of strength, made no apology for squeezing civil liberties and willingly shouldered the burden of being both an instrument of the president and a buffer between Bush and criticism of his administration's policies.

Ashcroft has supported using secret military tribunals for alleged terrorists, eavesdropping on attorneys and clients suspected of terrorism, detaining hundreds indefinitely on immigration charges and questioning some 5,000 Middle Eastern men across America.

"To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," he told Congress.

Critics say Ashcroft sometimes mistakes dissent for disloyalty, and they charge that his calls to broaden police powers are bending civil liberties to the breaking point.

"We obviously need an attorney general who will stand up to the terrorists," said Ralph Neas, the president of People for the American Way, a liberal group. "We also need an attorney general who will stand up for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights."

Asked about the pressure, Ashcroft pointed to others for inspiration, including the passengers who battled hijackers and crashed a plane in Pennsylvania rather than allow a second attack on Washington.

He also talked about his friend Barbara Olson, the conservative commentator and wife of Solicitor Gen. Ted Olson, who was on the hijacked plane that hit the Pentagon. She had called her husband from the doomed airliner.

"It's almost incomprehensible to think of Ted's situation, speaking to Barbara in her last moments alive on the plane," Ashcroft said.

He and his wife, Janet, had been to the Olsons' house for dinner on Sept. 9.

Feeling the weight

Ashcroft has always been known for his energy. Since Sept. 11, he has slept less and worked more. To those who have known him for years, he looks tired, drawn.

"It weighs heavily on him," said Deputy Chief of Staff David Israelite. "He goes to bed each night wondering if there's more that could be done. He wakes up each morning wondering what, 'What can we do?' That takes a toll on any person."

Old routines such as his morning walk to work and an 8 a.m. staff prayer an eyebrow-raising staple of his career in public life are gone. He recently took his turn as the Cabinet member dispatched to a secure location in case of an attack on Washington.

"A lot of people spend their entire lives in this kind of setting," Ashcroft said, offering Israelis as an example. "We wouldn't be the first people to make a sacrifice to improve the lives of those who follow us."

Son of a preacher man

Ashcroft, an evangelical son and grandson of ministers, lost the Missouri Senate race last year to the late Mel Carnahan, a former governor who was killed in a plane crash but whose name still appeared on the ballot. Carnahan's wife, Jean, was appointed to the Senate to fill his term.

President Bush nominated Ashcroft for a cabinet seat, and he was confirmed after contentious debate. Now, he doesn't dismiss the notion that God steered him where he is for a reason.

"I don't want to say yes or no," Ashcroft said with a brief laugh. "If I foul up big time, I don't want someone to blame God for it. But for anything good that happens as a result of my efforts, I'd be very happy to give God credit."

Lightning rod

Last week, more legal and civil rights groups urged Ashcroft to rescind a guideline which he says he has not put into use yet allowing the government to monitor conversations between lawyers and clients.

Even conservatives such as Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a former federal prosecutor, have been disturbed by the idea of tribunals, with their secret findings and no provisions for appeal. Yet others believe the government should have ordered such a tribunal for Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been indicted for conspiracy in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ashcroft is unshaken.

"The president should have this as a tool," he said of the tribunals. "He will make the decision. There are secrets the president knows that might have to be revealed at a trial in a conventional setting that he shouldn't have to reveal if it hurts America's interests."

Sharing the burden

Although Ashcroft oversees a 125,000-person department, 90 percent to 95 percent of his time is now devoted to counter-terrorism, his chief of staff Israelite said.

Shrugging off the unimaginable turn in his life, Ashcroft says simply that he is "grateful for the responsibility."

But he also said everyone must share the burden.

"This is the responsibility of the entire American culture. It's why we've invited so many people to provide information, to be alert, and vigilant."

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