Ashcroft - A Controversial Attorney-General
By Syed Arif Hussaini

John Ashcroft, a controversial and divisive US Attorney General, was the first to quit (eased out?) of the Bush cabinet reportedly on a clear hint from the White House. In his resignation letter to the President, he has claimed, “The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved.” This credit claim sounds somewhat narcissistic and it may or may not turn out to be true.

While at the helm of the Justice Department, Ashcroft had provoked much criticism among human rights groups, by the prestigious American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in particular. His approval ratings, according to the Gallup polls, varied between 34 to 58 per cent during his tenure.

His admirers point out that there was no terrorist attack since 9/11 on his watch, violent crime rate dropped noticeably, and corporate scammers were dealt with aggressively. His critics underline his persistent actions veering the nation away from its fundamental values, the very foundation on which the nation stood.

He saw a terrorist in every nook and corner of the country and went after him tooth and nail. More often than not, the pursuit turned out to be illusory. The laws of the land and the judicial system, which distracted his single-minded pursuit of real or imaginary terrorists, were regarded by him as irritants to be set aside to enable his team to pursue unhindered their prey.

The rights and liberties enshrined in the constitution, the hallmark of what America is all about, were to be circumvented if the terrorists were to be hamstrung. The outcome was the controversial Patriot Act. It was rushed through an overwhelmingly supine Congress with such urgency and in such a drummed up atmosphere of fear that most of the public representatives didn’t have the time to go through the voluminous draft bill.

According to Prof. Jonathan Turley of George Washington Law School, John Ashcraft has subverted more elements of the Bill of Rights than any Attorney General in American history.

Ashcroft, on the other hand, contended that his fight against terrorism was a fight for human rights - a pronouncement that would make George Orwell blush.
Fact of the matter is that he let loose a reign of terror against Arabs, Muslims and other brown-skinned residents of the country. Soon after 9/11 hundreds of them were swept up and locked up in jails incommunicado. The treatment meted out to the inmates of Guantanamo Bay prison has been widely disparaged.

Not a single person of the hundreds of Arabs and others taken into custody was found to have been involved in any terrorist act. Almost all the cases in which the accused were convicted related to violations of immigration laws as though the war on terror was being waged through anti-immigration measures.
In speech after speech, Ashcroft had warned: “If you overstay your visa even by one day, we will arrest you. If you violate a local law, you will be put in jail and kept in custody as long as possible. We will use every available prosecutorial advantage.”
Ashcroft was having people of a certain ethnicity arrested not because they had committed a crime but because they were likely to commit some. It was a risky preventive law enforcement. Criminal law punishes people for what they have done and not for what they might do.

In the first couple of months after 9/11, some 1200 Arabs and Muslims were arrested by way of preventive detention. Over 1100 more were added to this category by May 2003. A special registration program applicable to Muslims led to the detention of 2,747 more. Of these thousands, only five were charged with any terrorism-related crime. Even of these five only one person was convicted of conspiracy to support terrorism. Charges against the others couldn’t be proved.

Law professor, David Cole, in his book ‘Enemy Aliens’ mentions that in May 2003 the Inspector General of the Justice Department issued a scathing report on the post 9/11 immigration detainees. The report revealed that in a year since 9/11 the government had detained 738 foreign nationals (mostly Muslim) but not a single person of these was charged with any terrorist crime despite the fact that all of them were linked to 9/11 investigation. The report charged the Justice Department of arresting persons first and asking them questions later. Arrests were evidently based on ethnic profiling. Ashcroft’s policy emanated from a deep prejudice that was causing a rift even in his own Department.

America has a military justice system for those in uniform and for times of war, and a civil and criminal legal system used for the civilian population. Ashcroft invented a third system - a legal limbo without precedent where people could be declared enemies of the state and held indefinitely and incommunicado without being charged.

Some mention here of the background of Mr.Ashcroft would be appropriate. A radical evangelist, a neo-conservative, Ashcroft is a rare combination of piety, prejudice and ambition. He disapproves drinking, dancing and pre-marital sex and is a foe of abortion. Usually he would start his office day with a prayer meeting in his room of a dozen or so of his employees - a rare sight in a department known for its secular tradition and trait.

Senator Charles Schummer (D- NY) said that Mr. Ashcroft certainly “functioned out of conviction, but he was one of the most polarizing Attorney Generals of history”.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said he believed that Mr. Ashcroft would be remembered “for one of the worst civil liberties records of any modern Attorney General.”
In recent months his divisiveness had started worrying the White House. He had therefore to pack off to his Virginia farm.

President Bush has evidently started taking steps to create an atmosphere of reconciliation in the country. His selection of Alberto Gonzales to replace John Ashcroft makes much sense. Gonzales, a modest, soft-speaking moderate is likely to rectify the blunders of his zealous predecessor particularly in the realm of civil liberties. Fortunately, the US judiciary has always stepped in to set things right whenever some wing of the executive has indulged in unwanted excesses.

It is worth reproducing here the words of Supreme Court Judge, William Brennan, who said in 1986: “There is considerably less to be proud about, and a good deal to be embarrassed about, when one reflects on the shabby treatment civil liberties have received in the United States during times of war and perceived threats to national security…. After each perceived security crisis ended, the United States has remorsefully realized that the abrogation of civil liberties was unnecessary. But it has proven unable to prevent itself from repeating the error when the next crisis came along.”

One hopes that President Bush would before long modify the Patriot Act in a way that the glaring abridgement of civil liberties is done away with. His new Attorney General may likewise remove those guidelines that have caused ethnic profiling and consequent harms to the Muslim community of the United States.
( November 11, 2004)

Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.