Politics & Policy

Ashcroft’s Watch

A record of success.

Attorney General John Ashcroft’s resignation announcementTuesday came as no surprise to official Washington. Ashcroft had overseen the enforcement of our nation’s laws during one of the most demanding times in our history. He had done so at great cost to his own health, having been hospitalized last year for an extended period of time with severe and painful pancreatitis. So it was only natural that the man who stood as our bulwark of domestic security and our defender of life and liberty in the face of a threat both unimaginable and unimagined before September 11, 2001, should decide to take a much-earned rest at the end of President Bush’s first term.

Attorney General Ashcroft’s legacy is a complex one. In ordinary times, the accomplishments of the Department of Justice under his watch would be impressive. Violent crime is at a 30-year low, declining by 27 percent during the three-year period between 2001-2003. While a staunch supporter of gun ownership, Ashcroft also realized what many of his predecessors had not–that the way to stop violent crime is to enforce the gun laws that are on the books. Thus, federal gun-crime prosecutions are up over 75 percent in the last four years. In 2003 alone, more federal gun charges were brought than any prior year on record. The result was that 250,000 fewer gun crimes were committed in the last three years than in the prior three. Drug trafficking and human trafficking have been heavily targeted by the Justice Department, resulting in severe disruptions in criminal syndicates operating in both areas. The list goes on.

But, these are far from ordinary times. For all the extraordinary challenges he has faced, Ashcroft’s leadership has been equal to the task. As much as anyone in government, Ashcroft accepted the challenge laid down by President Bush in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the U.S.: “Don’t let this happen again.” And he hasn’t. He has recognized that the best defense to the threat of terrorism on our soil is a good offense. So he vigorously used multiple tools in his arsenal–from better surveillance, to increased criminal prosecutions, and simple enforcement of immigration laws–to keep Americans out of harm’s way. Working cooperatively with other agencies of government, the Department of Justice, under Ashcroft’s leadership, has taken the battle to the terrorists, freezing their assets in this country while disrupting their operations both here and abroad.

Has there been controversy? Most definitely. The mere mention of the Patriot Act sends shivers down the spine of the American Civil Liberties Union and its supporters. But Ashcroft’s use of the enhanced law enforcement and intelligence tools provided by the Patriot Act has been as measured as it has been effective. When the ACLU sued Ashcroft in Detroit last year to stop him from enforcing Section 215 of the Patriot Act–which it derisively (and inaccurately) calls the “libraries” provisions–it learned he had never authorized a Section 215 order to be sought. Ashcroft, contrary to his critics’ hype, realizes that liberty is a precious thing. But even more important, he recognizes that the most fundamental right that government can secure for the American people is the right to life. Without life, the liberties that his detractors so unfairly claim he has trampled are meaningless. By preventing a repeat of the mass murders committed on 9/11/01, Ashcroft has secured the blessings of liberty for both his countless friends and his many detractors. Whether those detractors ever step back and realize the freedom he has secured for them remains to be seen.

Nor did John Ashcroft believe that it was only the average Joe Citizen who was entitled to the protection of life and liberty. Instead, he fought for the most helpless–the unborn and the infirm. Upon the president’s signing of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, Ashcroft assigned responsibility for enforcement of the ban to the Justice Department’s civil-rights division, in recognition of the fact that life is the most precious of civil rights. He has overseen a vigorous defense of that act and, in a case currently before the Supreme Court, has sought to use federal drug laws to fight states that promote doctor-assisted suicide in their laws. He has done so because of a deeply held respect for the sanctity of life, a respect that has permeated his role as attorney general.

I had the personal privilege of serving in the Justice Department under John Ashcroft’s leadership. I was certainly by no means a close adviser, but I did have opportunity to meet with him on a number of occasions. What I saw behind closed doors was a man who was comfortable in his own skin, who recognized that he had a responsibility to make the tough decisions that went with his job. In one memorable case, after studying a difficult issue and making a decision with tough political consequences, he told those of us assembled to hear his decision, “I don’t get paid to make the easy decisions. But right is right, and I’ll accept the consequences.”

Ashcroft is also a man of enduring faith in God, a faith that guided his stewardship of the Department of Justice and that often drove his critics mad. But that faith was a necessary part of his most difficult job in our country’s most difficult time. And it was a blessing to us all. In his farewell message to the Department of Justice, he expressed gratitude for a successful tenure and underscored the challenges the country had faced over the last three years:

I express my gratitude to God for the each day the sun rises on a free and safe America. For the past three years, my every working day has begun with a report – a catalog of the murderous acts being plotted against Americans. That we have passed these three years in safety and security is a credit to you. But it would be the height of arrogance to assume we achieved this alone. The Psalms remind us: ‘Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stands guard in vain.”… And as I take my leave of this privileged post, I know that our efforts have not been in vain. The Builder of our city and the Author of our freedom has stood beside us. He stands beside us still.

The record already shows John Ashcroft’s efforts as attorney general have not been in vain. His tenure may be vilified in the coming days, especially as an election loss is still raw for many of his opponents. But many Americans are grateful to have had him as its watchman. Count me among them.

Shannen W. Coffin is a former deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.


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