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Ashcroft Steps Down, Leaves Controversial Legacy


Attorney General John Ashcroft's decision to leave the Bush administration has prompted a range of comment, both positive and negative, on his four-year tenure as the nation's highest-ranking law-enforcement official.

Mr. Ashcroft's profile rose quickly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when he became a familiar presence on television as he led a crackdown on suspected terrorists inside the United States.

"Our philosophy is not to wait and sift through the rubble following a terrorist attack," he said.

In the weeks following the attacks, more than 1,000 people suspected of terrorist links were detained by the Justice Department, many of them foreign nationals.

In October of 2001, President George Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. The Patriot Act expanded the power of law-enforcement officials to monitor and detain those suspected of having links to terrorists. But the law also provoked an outcry from those concerned with protecting civil liberties.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy was among those Democrats who frequently criticized Attorney General Ashcroft during his appearances before Congress.

"No one in the Congress or in the administration can ignore the Constitution of the United States," Sen. Leahy said. "To do so, we do it at our peril, and we weaken the United States, we do not strengthen the United States."

Mr. Ashcroft's supporters say he deserves at least some of the credit for the fact that the United States has not suffered another terrorist attack since the 2001 attacks.

Abraham Sofaer has monitored John Ashcroft's tenure as attorney general at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California.

"He really did turn the Department of Justice around from a policy that was overwhelmingly aimed at the development of criminal cases to a policy aimed predominantly at the prevention of attacks on the United States of one kind or another," he said.

But civil liberties advocates say they are glad to see Mr. Ashcroft depart. They point to an internal Justice Department investigation last year that criticized the prolonged detention of illegal immigrants in the wake of the 2001 attacks.

Arthur Spitzer is with the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

"Picking up hundreds of people for no good reason other than that they are Muslim or come from the Middle East and holding them in jail for months without a lawyer and without charges, for example, as Attorney General Ashcroft did, did not do anything to protect our nation from terrorism," he said.

In June of this year, the Supreme Court dealt the Justice Department a legal setback when it ruled that those deemed enemy combatants by the Bush administration must be given the opportunity to challenge their detention in U.S. courts.

Throughout his tenure, John Ashcroft remained unapologetic to his critics and defended his aggressive approach to protecting the country from terrorists, as he did in this interview with VOA late in 2001.

"And frankly, we need good discussion. It is the basis for the strengthening of and reinforcement of American liberties," Mr. Ashcroft said. "But for those to say that liberties are lost when the liberties are not, when there are safeguards, when liberties are as highly regarded or more so now than they have been in the past does a disservice."

Mr. Ashcroft is 62-years-old. He is a former governor and senator from Missouri who was chosen to be attorney general by President Bush after he lost his senate seat in the 2000 elections. Mr. Ashcroft has long enjoyed the support of religious conservatives and he considered a run for president in 2000 and might consider it again in 2008.

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