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Controversy Surrounds Attorney General's Policies - 2002-03-01

Nearly six months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, public approval ratings for President Bush and some of the key members of his administration, especially Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, remain very high. But widespread popularity has so far eluded Mr. Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, who remains the most controversial member of the president's cabinet.

As the nation's top law enforcement official, Attorney General Ashcroft is responsible for a wide range of federal criminal justice programs that tackle everything from organized crime to anti-drug efforts to enforcing the nation's civil rights laws.

But since September 11, the attorney general has focused much of his attention on preventing another major terrorist attack. "I feel that I am privileged to have the opportunity of trying to protect American lives. To disrupt terrorism is an honor," Mr. Ascroft said.

Though strongly supported by conservatives, Mr. Ashcroft remains a lightning rod for criticism from Democrats and liberal activist groups who see his aggressive pursuit of terrorism at home as a threat to civil liberties.

During a recent appearance before the House subcommittee that controls funding for the Justice Department, Mr. Ashcroft was challenged by Democratic Congressman Jose Serrano of New York. "We fear for our civil liberties. We feel that during this moment of crisis, we will take this opportunity to not pay attention to the long-term harm that we may do," Mr. Serrano said.

Alex Arriaga is Director of Governmental Relations for Amnesty International, USA. She says the attorney general's dismissive response to his critics has undermined public confidence in his leadership. "But the attorney general as well and his famous words about 'phantoms of lost liberty and fear mongers and to those who scare peace loving Americans, your tactics aid the terrorists.' I mean, those kinds of messages from the administration also fell into the whole atmosphere of secrecy, do not question, and made it much more difficult to raise the questions," she explained.

Mr. Ashcroft believes he has been unfairly singled out for criticism by liberal groups that opposed his appointment as attorney general. In a VOA interview in December, the attorney general rejected the notion that he was willing to infringe on civil liberties in the domestic hunt for suspected terrorists.

"But for those to say that liberties are lost when the liberties are not, when there are safeguards and when liberties are as highly regarded or more so than they have been in the past does a disservice," the attorney general said.

For every critic of the attorney general, there is a Republican willing to stand up and defend him. This is how Iowa Congressman Tom Latham greeted Mr. Ashcroft at a recent hearing. "And I want to congratulate you on I think an outstanding job that you have done protecting our country and I don't think there is any question that the actions that you have taken have saved American lives since September 11 and we are all deeply appreciative of the fine work that you have done," Mr. Latham said.

Even some Democrats concede that while the attorney general remains a divisive figure personally, most Americans applaud his tough crackdown on suspected terrorists.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart says public support for the Bush Administration's response in general to the terror threat has overwhelmed specific concerns about Attorney General Ashcroft.

"The country has sort of looked at itself and we like the way in which we have responded to this attack and the way in which we have reacted as a country and as people," Mr. Hart said.

Mr. Ashcroft's critics and defenders are also sharply split over his conservative Christian beliefs. Arab-American activists were offended by a recent interview in which Mr. Ashcroft reportedly described Islam as a religion that, in his words, "God requires you to send your son to die for him."

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the attorney general was referring to extremist suicide terrorists who have hijacked the religion and not Islam in general.

But many conservative Christian activists within the Republican Party admire the fact that Mr. Ashcroft is proud of his religious beliefs and unlike other public officials does not try to hide it from the public.