The Magazine

General Ashcroft

Justice goes to war.

Dec 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 14 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Those close to Ashcroft say the sharp, at times personal, comments about him by former colleagues surprised and wounded him. That may help explain his low profile during his early months as attorney general. Ashcroft did take positions that pleased conservatives--most notably, he said the Second Amendment protects the individual's right to bear arms. But he did not emerge as the conservative activist liberals had feared. In a recent Supreme Court case, for example, rather than opposing a federal statute permitting racial preferences, he defended it, doubtless over his own strongly held policy beliefs. As for the department's day-to-day labor, Ashcroft, according to some Justice officials, often seemed bored with it. Life in the Bush cabinet may have proved too constraining for a former senator. There was talk in the corridors of Justice that the attorney general's real interest lay elsewhere--perhaps in another run for elective office.

But then came September 11 and Bush's deployment of General Ashcroft to the domestic front. He seems a man liberated. He works long hours seven days a week, and his energies are concentrated on fighting terrorism. "He's very focused, very committed, very intense," says one Justice official. Ashcroft, the son and grandson of Pentecostal ministers and a man who takes his faith seriously, sees his September 11 assignment (as the president does his) in terms of calling. And daily he is reminded of what the terrorists did on September 11. A few days after the 11th, he hung in his office a photograph of Barbara Olson, taken during his confirmation hearings. It shows her speaking into microphones at a rally of his supporters. Barbara Olson, wife of Theodore B. Olson, the solicitor general and fourth-ranking Justice Department officer, was on the plane that the terrorists crashed into the Pentagon.

For Justice, fighting terrorism has required new legislation (the so-called Patriot Act, passed in October), new regulations, and new approaches to law enforcement, including a new Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, whose goal is to prevent terrorists from entering the country and to find any who are here. In what the president (echoed by Ashcroft) has called a wartime reorganization of the Justice Department, federal prosecutors, FBI agents, and immigration officers now have as their primary mission the prevention of terrorist attacks. The FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are to undergo fundamental restructuring. The department will end up spending less time on other responsibilities, while shifting 10 percent of the employee positions at the main Washington office, the FBI, and other agencies to field offices around the country.

Once beefed up, these field offices will provide hands for a new anti-terrorism task force in every U.S. attorney's office. Michael Chertoff, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division, oversees the task forces' efforts--with Ashcroft at his elbow. And Ashcroft has centralized decision-making authority in his own office for prosecuting terrorism cases and preventing future terrorist acts. He will make the important decisions, with help from Chertoff and Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, among others. "There's so much that can go on, and [the cases] are so far-flung, that to have it uncoordinated centrally, you run the risk of missing the big picture," says Chertoff, who was a U.S. attorney in New Jersey under Bush's father. "You run the risk of everyone seeing a small piece, but no one being able to stand back and say, 'Wait a minute, these pieces fit together, . . . and that's not even to mention the international component.'"

Ashcroft has carved out a huge role for himself in the area of criminal law: the supervision of merely the biggest criminal investigation in American history. "I was thinking the other day," Chertoff told me, "that when I came into this job [heading the Criminal Division] I didn't have a sense of who in the department I would see most on a regular basis. I wind up with the attorney general more than any other . . . official in the government. Which is indicative of how deeply involved he is in this."