The Magazine

General Ashcroft

Justice goes to war.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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ON NOVEMBER 29, Attorney General John Ashcroft introduced President Bush to an audience of the nation's 94 U.S. attorneys. Bush began his remarks by commending Ashcroft for "principled" and "steady" leadership. "I guess we call you General," he said. Then, turning to the U.S. attorneys, he added, "That means you all are in the Army. And I am glad you are."

Attorneys general long have been addressed as "General." But to say that those supervised by an attorney general are "in the Army" is an odd play on the title--or would be, except that the nation is at war, and the Justice Department is playing a major role. And so it was that the president found himself commenting to his audience not only on the ordinary work of federal prosecutors, but also on "the front line" where U.S. attorneys are now engaged--and General John Ashcroft commands.

Not everyone, of course, is glad to have General Ashcroft commanding. The former Missouri senator's efforts against terrorism are drawing objections from the libertarian right and especially liberals, some of whom have fired rhetorical cruise missiles. NAACP chairman Julian Bond has said that Ashcroft "knows something about the Taliban, coming as he does from that wing of American politics." Bill Goodman of the Center for Constitutional Rights has called Ashcroft and his Justice Department the nation's "main enemies." Osama bin Laden is, presumably, a minor enemy.

As it happens, bin Laden and his al Qaeda network will have to contend with Ashcroft if their operatives are inside our borders, as will all other terrorist groups who attempt to reach into the United States and kill Americans. The president has sent Ashcroft and the Justice Department into battle to fight an unconventional war.

The president thinks about the war on terrorism in terms of "two fronts"--one abroad, fought through the Defense Department, and the other at home, waged through Justice. The latter department isn't uninvolved in the war being fought overseas with aircraft and soldiers. One of the original duties of the attorney general's office, created in 1789, was to provide legal advice to the president, and Ashcroft has offered Bush counsel on the use of military tribunals to try captured terrorists. Bush authorized such tribunals a few weeks ago, and the attorney general has not shied from defending them before the public. His main assignment, however, is to fight terrorism at home.

He has moved swiftly to do that. Before September 11, fighting terrorism wasn't even among Justice's top five priorities. Afterwards, it shot up to No. 1. The goal includes investigating and prosecuting crimes of terrorism, Justice's traditional role. But in light of bin Laden's designs on America, the department now is far more preoccupied with preventing further terrorist acts. As Ashcroft explained at a Senate hearing in late September, "The new terrorist threat to Americans on our soil is a turning point in America's history. It is a new challenge for law enforcement. Our fight . . . is not merely or primarily a criminal justice endeavor--it is defense of our nation and its citizens. We cannot wait for terrorists to strike to begin investigations and make arrests. The death tolls are too high, the consequences too great. We must prevent first, prosecute second."

THE ORDER to prevent terrorism came straight from the president. Ashcroft has told aides about a meeting in the Oval Office. Robert Mueller, confirmed just days before as director of the FBI, was also there. "They all realized that there was a threat" of more terrorism inside the United States, says one aide. And the president told Ashcroft, in so many words, "never to let this happen again."

Ashcroft has been invigorated by his new assignment. Indeed, his has been a dramatic change in fortune. Last November he was defeated in his bid for reelection to the Senate. Not close to Bush, he wasn't the president's first choice for attorney general. He was selected in part because conservatives wanted an unambiguous conservative in the job--a description Ashcroft certainly fit. Because of the Democrats' disagreement with his politics, however, he endured a bruising confirmation battle. Democrats relentlessly challenged him on gun control, abortion, civil rights, and most of all his role in defeating the judicial nomination of the first black member of the Missouri Supreme Court. He was confirmed by the narrowest vote of any Bush cabinet member, 58 to 42.