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Ashcroft Testifies Before Congress on Homeland Security - 2002-07-11

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was among several top cabinet officials who testified before Congress Thursday on the issue of homeland security. His appearance was noteworthy because Mr. Ashcroft has been keeping a low public profile in recent weeks after gaining a reputation as one of the most controversial and visible officials within the Bush administration.

When we last heard from Attorney General Ashcroft early last month, he was in Moscow announcing the arrest of dirty bomb suspect Jose Padilla, saying, "We have disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive dirty bomb."

But White House officials reportedly were unhappy with Mr. Ashcroft's performance, concerned with the attorney general's alarmist tone and upset that he had not cleared his statement in advance with presidential aides.

In the weeks since, Mr. Ashcroft has given very few public statements and no news conferences. That is a dramatic change for a man who became one of the most visible members of the Bush cabinet in the days following the September 11 terrorist attacks. Seldom would a week go by without at least one and often several public appearances or news conferences by the attorney general.

It was, in part, because of those many public appearances that the attorney general became the administration's leading lightning rod for criticism.

Mr. Ashcroft is a former senator and governor whose hard-charging style matches well with the administration's aggressive pursuit of suspected terrorists at home. "Our philosophy is not to wait and sift through the rubble following a terrorist attack," he said.

But it was that hard-charging style that got him into trouble with critics in Congress concerned that the administration was threatening to trample over civil liberties in pursuit of national security.

Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and has frequently clashed with Mr. Ashcroft, saying that, "no one in the Congress or in the administration can ignore the Constitution of the United States. To do so, we do it at our peril, and we weaken the United States, we do not strengthen the United States."

Civil liberties groups and American-Muslim organizations have also criticized the attorney general for going too far in rounding up and deporting some non-citizens who may have had ties to terrorists in the wake of last September's attacks.

On Thursday, Mr. Ashcroft defended his actions before a special House Committee on homeland security. "And for those who say we have got to make a choice between liberty and security," he said, "I always want to say, liberty is what we are securing. If we are not securing liberty, we've got our eyes on the wrong objective."

Mr. Ashcroft remains popular with conservative Republicans who admire his no-nonsense style and his refusal to mask his deeply-held Christian religious views.

Tom Latham, a Republican congressman from Iowa, lavished praise on the Attorney General, saying, "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."

Both supporters and critics of the attorney general are now waiting to see if Mr. Ashcroft's appearance before Congress signals his re-emergence into the public eye.