Ashcroft, John

views updated Jun 11 2018

John Ashcroft

Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Department of Justice

Delivered on December 6, 2001

"Your tactics only aid terrorists—for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."

O n September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four U.S. airplanes en route from the East Coast to the West Coast. Two planes were forced to fly into the World Trade Center in New York City, each bringing one of the twin towers crashing to the ground. A third plane was intentionally flown into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing nearly two hundred people inside the U.S. military headquarters building. The fourth plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania, evidently forced down by its passengers and crew who, aware of the other hijackings, were determined to thwart the terrorists' plan.

The federal government immediately set about trying to find out who was behind the attacks. Within ten days, President George W. Bush (1946–) had identified the hijackers as members of a radical Muslim organization: Al Qaeda. Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and state or local police departments began investigations to identify and arrest any other conspirators.

The authorities conducted these investigations amid an atmosphere full of both newly awakened patriotism as well as rage towards those who might be responsible. As the government's attention focused on Al Qaeda, it also focused on Muslims (followers of the religion Islam) living in America and people originally from countries in the Middle East. Law enforcement agencies quickly concluded that, among the nineteen hijackers who had commandeered the four flights, most were Muslim citizens from Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

These attacks on U.S. soil immediately reminded many Americans of the Japanese bombing of U.S. Navy ships berthed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941—an event that led the United States to declare war on Japan the next day. The aftermath of September 11, 2001, also reminded some people that after Pearl Harbor, thousands of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forced into concentration camps even though there was no evidence thatthey had done anything illegal.

Consequently, when FBI agents began interviewing American Muslim residents from the Middle East—apparently simply because they hailed from countries in that region—some critics raised the question: is the United States about to repeat the injustices of Japanese American internment? Were federal agents, prompted by fear and outrage, trampling on certain people's rights simply because of their national background or religion?

Other critics wondered whether the government was using September 11 as an excuse to curtail civil liberties (basic freedoms) in general, assuming most Americans would approve just about any actions if they helped to capture those responsible for the terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft, appeared before a Senate committee to deny such charges. In his prepared remarks, Ashcroft went one step further. He said that questioning the government's actions was equivalent to helping the members of Al Qaeda. To his critics, Ashcroft's speech equated free and open democratic debate with treason (crimes against one's country) and sympathy for terrorist bombers.

Things to remember while reading Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

  • Politicians such as the U.S. attorney general often speak to more than one audience at the same time. Although he was appearing in front of a group of U.S. senators, Ashcroft knew his remarks would appear in newspapers and on television. He wanted to make a point, not just to his Senate audience, but also to all U.S. citizens. He was appealing for broad public support of the government's actions, while also trying to persuade Americans that the administration of President Bush was doing everything it could—and should—to prevent future terrorist attacks. In his speech, Ashcroft also was trying to recruit the support of other countries for American military action. Finally, Ashcroft wanted to portray the September 11 attackers and their cohorts as very different from mainstream Muslims and law-abiding citizens of Islamic countries: he wanted to represent the terrorist network as an immediate and ongoing threat to all allies of the United States.
  • By the time Ashcroft addressed the committee, nearly three months had passed since September 11 with no follow-up attacks. By early December, following an intensive bombing campaign against Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan, questions were being raised about whether Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden (c. 1957–), was still alive. On the other hand, President Bush had declared a "war on terrorism," and it was important to the Bush administration to sustain public support. Ashcroft's statement in December may look different as more time passes. If subsequent terrorist attacks do not materialize, is it because the government prevented them? Or was the threat to the United States after September 11 overstated in order to build political support for an administration that had been relatively unpopular before the attacks?
  • Ashcroft was eager to remind the senators that their powers were limited—in Ashcroft's view—by the U.S. Constitution. He delivered a short lesson on constitutional law by telling the Senate that it could not interfere with powers of the executive branch (that is, the president) to enforce the law. Ashcroft's testimony underlined the tensions that frequently arise between the two branches of government. The legislative branch, or Congress, conducts "investigations," which often are intended to influence the way the executive branch enforces the laws passed by Congress. Legislation, however, often is just the beginning of the argument—especially when the one party holds the presidency and another party controls one (or both) houses of Congress.
  • Ashcroft uses a number of debating techniques in his statement. Right at the outset, for example, he characterizes the viewpoint of some people as a "dream world," suggesting they would prefer the government not respond to September 11—even though no one on the Senate Judiciary Committee had suggested such a thing. As a lawyer and politician, Ashcroft is skilled at presenting his critics' opinions in ways that make him look as if he is obviously right and his critics either naïve (unknowing) or dangerous. Another technique is to refer to secret information, not known to his political opponents, which supposedly proves his point, even though he does not provide any details of this information.

Excerpts from Testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, December 6, 2001

Since those first terrible hours ofSeptember 11 , America has faced a choice that is as stark as the images that linger of that morning. One option is to call September 11 a fluke, to believe it could never happen again, and to live in a dream world that requires us to do nothing differently. The other option is to fight back, to summon all our strength and all our resources and devote ourselves to better ways to identify, disrupt and dismantle terrorist networks.

September 11: September 11, 2001, the day on which Al Qaeda terrorists flew hijacked commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., killing over three thousand people.

Under the leadership of President Bush, America has made the choice to fight terrorism—not just for ourselves but for all civilized people. Since September 11, through dozens of warnings to law enforcement, a deliberate campaign of terrorist disruption, tighter security around potential targets, and a preventative campaign of arrest anddetention of lawbreakers, America has grown stronger—and safer—in the face of terrorism.

Detention: Jailing.

Thanks to thevigilance of law enforcement and the patience of the American people, we have not suffered another major terrorist attack. Still, we cannot—we must not—allow ourselves to growcomplacent . The reasons are apparent to me each morning. My day begins with a review of the threats to Americans and American interests that were received in the previous 24 hours. If ever there were proof of the existence of evil in the world, it is in the pages of these reports. They are a chilling dailychronicle of hatred of America by fanatics who seek to extinguish freedom, enslave women, corrupt education and to kill Americans wherever and whenever they can.

Vigilence: Determination.

Complacent: Comfortable.

Chronicle: Written account.

The terrorist enemy that threatens civilization today is unlike any we have ever known. It slaughters thousands of innocents—a crime of war and a crime against humanity. It seeks weapons of mass destruction and threatens their use against America. No one should doubt the intent, nor the depth, of its consuming, destructive hatred.

Terroristoperatives infiltrate our communities—plotting, planning and waiting to kill again. They enjoy the benefits of our free society even as they commit themselves to our destruction. Theyexploit our openness—not randomly or haphazardly—but by deliberate,premeditated design.

Operatives: Agents.

Infiltrate: To become established in.

Exploit: Take advantage of a person or situation for personal gain.

Premeditated: Plannedin advance.

This is a seizedAl Qaeda training manual—a 'how-to' guide for terrorists—that instructs enemy operatives in the art of killing in a free society.Prosecutors first made this manual public in the trial of the Al Qaeda terrorists who bombed U.S. embassies in Africa. We are posting several Al Qaeda lessons from this manual on our website today so Americans can know our enemy.

Al Qaeda: Terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden responsible for September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, as well as attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and off the shores of Yemen in 2000.

Prosecutors: Government lawyers who conduct court proceedings.

In this manual, Al Qaeda terrorists are told how to use America's freedom as a weapon against us. They are instructed to use the benefits of a free press—newspapers, magazines and broadcasts—to stalk and kill their victims. They are instructed to exploit ourjudicial process for the success of their operations. Captured terrorists are taught to anticipate a series of questions from authorities and, in each response, to lie—to lie about who they are, to lie about what they aredoing and to lie about who they know in order for the operation to achieve its objective….

Judicial process: The legal method of investigating a crime and the steps involved in bringing the accusedto court for a fair and impartial trial.

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, we are at war with an enemy who abuses individual rights as it abuses jet airliners: as weapons with which to kill Americans. We have responded by redefining the mission of theDepartment of Justice . Defending our nation and its citizens against terrorist attacks is now our first and overriding priority.

Department of Justice: Federal agency responsible for the enforcement of laws and prosecution, headed by the Attorney General.

We have launched the largest, most comprehensive criminal investigation in world history to identify the killers of September 11 and to prevent further terrorist attacks. Four thousandFBI agents are engaged with their international counterparts in anunprecedented worldwide effort to detect, disrupt and dismantle terrorist organizations.

FBI: Federal Bureau of Investigation; federal agency responsible for law enforcement.

Unprecedented: An occurrence or event happening for the first time.

We have created a national task force at the FBI to centralize control and information sharing in our investigation. This task force has investigated hundreds of thousands of leads, conducted over 500 searches, interviewed thousands of witnesses and obtained numerous court-authorizedsurveillance orders. Our prosecutors and agents have collected information and evidence from countries throughout Europe and the Middle East….

Surveillance: Close watch.

We have sought and received additional tools from Congress. Already, we have begun to utilize many of these tools. Within hours of passage of theUSA PATRIOT Act , we made use of its provisions to begin enhanced information sharing between the law-enforcement and intelligence communities. We have used the provisions allowing nationwidesearch warrants for e-mail andsubpoenas for payment information. And we have used the Act to place those who access the Internet through cable companies on the same footing as everyone else.

USA Patriot Act: Law passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President George W. Bush giving police new authority to search homes and business records.

Search warrants: Court-ordered document allowing law enforcement officials to search the property of a suspected criminal to obtain evidence.

Subpoenas: An order by a court of law commanding an individual person's presence to participate in a judicial proceeding.

Just yesterday, at my request, theState Department designated 39 entities as terrorist organizationspursuant to the USA PATRIOT Act.

State Department: Federal executive agency responsible for diplomatic relations with other nations.

Pursuant: According to.

We have waged a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to remove suspected terrorists who violate the law from our streets. Currently, we have brought criminal charges against 110 individuals, of whom 60 are in federal custody. TheINS has detained 563 individuals on immigration violations.

INS: Immigration and Naturalization Service; federal agency in charge of foreigners wishing to live in the United States.

We have investigated more than 250 incidents ofretaliatory violence

Retaliatory: Returning fireor action.

and threats against Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans and South Asian Americans.

Since September 11, the Customs Service and Border Patrol have been at their highest state of alert. All vehicles and persons entering the country are subjected to the highest level of scrutiny. Working with the State Department, we have imposed new screening requirements on certain applicants fornon-immigrant visas . At the direction of the President, we have created a Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force to ensure that we do everything we can to prevent terrorists from entering the country, and to locate and remove those who already have.

Non-immigrant visas: Passes given to individuals—usually students—permitting them to live in the United States for a certain amount of time without applying for citizenship.

We have prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law individuals who waste precious law enforcement resources throughanthrax hoaxes .

Anthrax hoaxes: Wave of phony threats of releasing anthrax, an infectious and usually fatal bacterial disease, into the air ventilation systems of buildings and throughthe mail.

We have offered non-citizens willing to come forward with valuable information a chance to live in this country and one day become citizens.

We have forged new cooperative agreements with Canada to protect our common borders and the economic prosperity they sustain.

We have embarked on a wartime reorganization of the Department of Justice. We are transferring resources and personnel to thefield offices where citizens are served and protected. The INS is being restructured to better perform its service and border security responsibilities. Under Director Bob Mueller, the FBI is undergoing an historic reorganization to put the prevention of terrorism at the center of its law enforcement and national security efforts.

Field offices: Branch offices of a particular organization away from its main headquarters.

Outside Washington, we are forging new relationships of cooperation with state and local law enforcement.

We have created 93 Anti-Terrorism Task Forces—one in each U.S. Attorney's district—to integrate the communications and activities of local, state and federal law enforcement.

In all these ways and more, the Department of Justice has sought to prevent terrorism with reason, careful balance andexcruciating attention to detail. Some of our critics, I regret to say, have shown less affection for detail. Their bold declarations of so-called fact have quickly dissolved, upon inspection, intovague conjecture . Charges of "kangaroo courts "and"shredding the Constitution" give new meaning to the term, "the fog of war."

Excruciating: Careful; meticulous.

Vague: Unclear.

Conjecture: Rumor; unfounded accusation.

Kangaroo courts: Judgments or punishments given outside of legal procedure.

Since lives and liberties depend upon clarity, notobfuscation , and reason, nothyperbole , let me take this opportunity today to be clear: Each action taken by the Department of Justice, as well as the war crimes commissions considered by the President and the Department of Defense, is carefully drawn to target a narrow class of individuals—terrorists. Our legal powers are targeted at terrorists. Our investigation is focused on terrorists. Our prevention strategy targets the terrorist threat.

Obfuscation: Confusing.

Hyperbole: Large exaggeration.

Since 1983, the United States government has defined terrorists as those whoperpetrate premeditated , politically motivated violence againstnoncombatant targets. My message to America this morning, then, is this: If you fit this definition of a terrorist, fear the United States, for you will lose your liberty.

Perpetrate: Commit.

Premeditated: Planned in advance.

Noncombatant: Individuals or groups not active in a war; non-soldiers.

We need honest, reasoned debate; notfear-mongering . To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against noncitizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists—for theyerode our national unity and diminish ourresolve . They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

Fear-mongering: Spreading fear or worry through threat of violence or other action.

Erode: To diminish or destruct in a slow fashion.

Resolve: Fixed purpose.

Our efforts have been carefully crafted to avoidinfringing onconstitutional rights while saving American lives. We have engaged

Infringing: Violate or transgress.

Constitutional rights: Rights granted to citizens in the Constitution, the supreme law of the United States.

in a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention of law breakers. All persons being detained have the right to contact their lawyers and their families. Out of respect for their privacy, and concern for saving lives, we will not publicize the names of those detained.

We have the authority to monitor the conversations of 16 of the 158,000 federal inmates and their attorneys because we suspect that these communications arefacilitating acts of terrorism. Each prisoner has been told in advance his conversations will be monitored. None of the information that is protected byattorney-client privilege may be used for prosecution. Information will only be used to stop impend ing terrorist acts and save American lives.

Facilitating: Making possible.

Attorney-client privilege: Legally protected speech between a lawyer and hisor her client that cannotbe revealed to anyone orany authority.

We have asked a very limited number of individuals—visitors to our country holding passports from countries with active Al Qaeda operations—to speak voluntarily to law enforcement. We are forcing them to do nothing. We are merely asking them to do the right thing: to willingly disclose information they may have of terrorist threats to the lives and safety of all people in the United States.

Throughout all our activities since September 11, we have kept Congress informed of our continuing efforts to protect the American people. Beginning with aclassified briefing by Director Mueller and me on the very evening of September 11, the Justice Department has briefed members of the House, the Senate and their staffs on more than 100 occasions.

Classified: Secret.

Briefing: Meeting in which a top official is advised of various events and background information.

Attorney General John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft, a Republican U.S. senator from Missouri, was running for reelection in November 2000; at the same time, his fellow Republican George W. Bush was running for president. Ashcroft lost his race to Jean Carnahan, the widow of the state's Democratic governor. Her husband, Mel Carnahan, had been the original Democratic senate candidate, but he had died in a plane crash shortly before the election. Carnahan's wife replaced him on the ticket, and she beat Ashcroft despite her lack of political experience. Bush lost the popular vote but won the presidency on a Supreme Court decision issued weeks after a hotly contested and controversial election; he nominated Ashcroft to become U.S. Attorney General.

Ashcroft had been one of the most conservative (traditional) Republicans in the Senate. He was the son and grandson of ministers of the Assembly of God, a fundamentalist church. Ashcroft graduated from Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School, as did his wife. After graduation, the married Ashcrofts both practiced law and wrote two college textbooks.

Ashcroft's political career began with election as Missouri's state attorney general in 1976 and again in 1980. He was elected governor of Missouri in 1984 and again in 1988. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1994 with 60 percent of the vote, but he lost his bid for reelection in 2000.

Despite the separation of church and state, an idea on which the United States was founded, Ashcroft became well known for supporting measures that would enable the government to channel welfare payments through religious organizations. He never apologized for practicing Christianity, and he often led religious observances in his office.

We have worked with Congress in the belief and recognition that no single branch of government alone can stop terrorism. We have consulted with members out of respect for the separation of powers that is the basis of our system of government. However, Congress' power ofoversight is not without limits. The Constitution specificallydelegates to the President the authority to "take care that the laws are faithfullyexecuted " And perhaps most importantly, the Constitutionvests the President with the extraordinary and sole authority as Commander in Chief to lead our nation in times of war.

Oversight: In government, the act of providing a check on another branch of government.

Delegates: Gives responsibility to.

Executed: Conducted.

Vests: Empowers.

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, not long ago I had the privilege of sitting where you now sit. I have the greatest reverence and respect for the constitutional responsibilities you shoulder. I will continue to consult with Congress so that you may fulfill your constitutional responsibilities. In some areas, however, I cannot and will not consult you.

The advice I give to the President, whether in his role as Commander in Chief or in any other capacity, isprivileged and confidential. I cannot and will notdivulge the contents, thecontext , or even the existence of such advice to anyone—including Congress—unless the President instructs me to do so. I cannot and will not divulge information, nor do I believe that anyone here would wish me to divulge information, that will damage the national security of the United States, the safety of its citizens or our efforts to ensure the same in an ongoing investigation.

Privileged: Meant for only a few people.

Divulge: Be let known.

Context: Meaning.

As Attorney General, it is my responsibility—at the direction of the President—to exercise those coreexecutive powers the Constitution so designates. The law enforcement initiatives undertaken by the Department of Justice, those individuals we arrest, detain or seek to interview, fall under these core executive powers. In addition, the President's authority to establishwar-crimes commissions arises out of his power as Commander in Chief. For centuries, Congress has recognized this authority and the Supreme Court has never held that any Congress may limit it.

Executive: Branch of government in the American federal system responsible for executing and enforcing the laws passed by Congress.

War-crimes commissions: Committees formed to examine and, in some cases, prosecute those who violate the rules of engagementin war.

In accordance with over two hundred years of historical and legalprecedent , the executive branch is now exercising its core Constitutional powers in the interest of saving the lives of Americans. I trust that Congress will respect the proper limits of Executive Branch consultation that I am duty-bound to uphold. I trust, as well, that Congress will respect this President's authority to wage war on terrorism and defend our nation and its citizens with all the power vested in him by the Constitution and entrusted to him by the American people.

Precedent: Judicial decision from the past that remainsas law.

Thank you.

What happened next …

The U.S. Senate, controlled by Democrats, did not challenge Ashcroft's efforts to investigate citizens of predominantly Islamic countries about their possible involvement in the events of September 11, 2001. Federal agents arrested several thousand people, many of them on grounds of violating the conditions of their visas (permission to be in the United States); some of these detainees were deported. In later weeks, sentiment also grew rapidly to dissolve the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a part of Ashcroft's Justice Department, and replace it with two separate agencies: one to guard the U.S. borders and one to handle immigration matters.

Despite the federal government's eagerness to apply special rules for bringing terrorism suspects to court, few, if any, new rules were actually adopted. However, some foreign citizens who had been arrested were kept in jail for many months without being charged with any crimes. Several U.S. senators and representatives from both parties called for an independent investigation to determine whether government officials might have had meaningful evidence during the weeks before September 11, 2001, that, if interpreted correctly, might have enabled them to prevent the attacks.

The events of September 11, 2001 remained largely outside the realm of political dispute, however. The Democrats, trying to find ways to gain public support, turned away from the issue of terrorism, instead focusing on domestic economic policy, health care, and education. In the meantime, as months passed without more terrorist attacks, the issue became less powerful for President Bush. His support in public polls gradually declined from the unprecedented high levels that had immediately followed September 11, 2001.

Did you know …

  • At the beginning of World War II (1939–45), the federal government rounded up thousands of American citizens living on the West Coast and sent them to live in concentration camps—simply because their parents had come to the United States from Japan. Many of them lost their businesses and personal property and suffered financial losses as a result of the internment. Yet no Japanese American was ever found guilty of acting as an agent of the Japanese government. Later, some Japanese Americans were organized into special units within the U.S. Army and fought in Europe with distinction, earning awards and special recognition.

For More Information

Belfrage, Cedric. The American Inquisition, 1945–1960. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973.

Berger, Raoul. Executive Privilege: A Constitutional Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Bodenhamer, David J. Fair Trial: Rights of the Accused in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

MacDonnell, Francis. Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Melanson, Philip H. Secrecy Wars: National Security, Privacy, and the Public's Right to Know. Washington, DC: Brassey's, 2001.

Rozell, Mark J. Executive Privilege: The Dilemma of Secrecy and Democratic Accountability. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston, MA: Little, Brown; 1998.

"Testimony of Attorney General John Ashcroft to Senate Judiciary Committee, December 6, 2001." Available at (accessed on October 23, 2002).

John David Ashcroft

views updated May 23 2018

John David Ashcroft

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (born 1942) was one of the most powerful members of President George W. Bush's cabinet. Ashcroft served as a state attorney general, Missouri governor, and U.S. senator prior to becoming U.S. attorney general. His conservative social views made him a controversial figure in the Bush administration.

Religious Upbringing

Ashcroft's paternal grandfather emigrated to the United States from Northern Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Shortly after arriving, he was severely burned in a gasoline explosion and almost died. He thereafter dedicated his life to full-time Christian evangelism. Eventually he joined the Assembly of God Church.

Robert Ashcroft followed his father into the ministry. On May 9, 1942, while Robert and his wife, Grace, were living in Chicago, their son John was born. The Ashcrofts later moved to Springfield, Missouri, to be closer to the headquarters of the Assembly of God.

Robert Ashcroft served as president of three colleges affiliated with the Assembly of God. According to an article that appeared in the New Yorker in 2002, he began each day with a prayer that included the words, "Keep us from accident, injury, and illness. But most of all keep us from evil." As attorney general, Ashcroft would continue his father's practice of morning group prayer.

Scholastic Achievements

As a student at Hillcrest High School in Springfield, Ashcroft was president of his class. He also played basketball and was captain and quarterback of the football team, and he earned a football scholarship to Yale University. At Yale, a knee injury kept him out of intercollegiate football, though he did well in intramural sports. Following his graduation with honors from Yale in 1964, Ashcroft attended the University of Chicago Law School on a scholarship.

While at the University of Chicago, Ashcroft met his future wife, Janet Roede, another law student. They were married in 1967. After graduating from law school, Ashcroft took his wife back to Springfield, where he opened a law practice. He also began teaching at Southwest Missouri State University.

Political Head Start

While still an undergraduate, Ashcroft had worked as a summer intern for his congressman. When the congressman declined to seek re-election in 1972, Ashcroft ran as a replacement candidate in the Republican Party primary, but lost the bid for the nomination with nearly 45 percent of the vote. Soon after, the 30-year-old Ashcroft was asked to fill an unexpired term as state auditor. However, Ashcroft failed to win election to the office two years later.

Missouri's attorney general John Danforth then hired Ashcroft as a legal assistant. (One of the other junior lawyers in Danforth's office was future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.) In 1976, when Danforth ran for the United States Senate, Ashcroft was elected to replace him as attorney general.

As Missouri's attorney general, Ashcroft made a single appearance before the United States Supreme Court, arguing a set of state statutes, including one that required all second-trimester abortions to be performed in a hospital. Ashcroft won re-election as attorney general in 1980, and he was selected chairman of the non-partisan National Association of Attorneys General.

Governor of Missouri

In 1984, Ashcroft ran successfully for governor of Missouri. As governor, he balanced eight consecutive state budgets. He also served as chairman of the Education Commission of the States. Fortune magazine named him one of the top ten education governors, and he made Missouri one of the best managed states financially. In 1991, he was elected chairman of the non-partisan National Governors Association.

But as Missouri's governor, Ashcroft also drew attention for opposing abortion rights and school desegregation. He attempted to appoint a task force to tighten Missouri's restrictive abortion law after the Supreme Court upheld the state's law in 1989. And a year later, he proposed limiting the number of abortions a woman could have to one.

Term limits prevented Ashcroft from seeking reelection in 1992, so in 1993 he ran for chairman of the Republican National Committee. But after meeting opposition from pro-choice Missouri Republicans, he abandoned the race. When Senator Danforth announced that he would not seek re-election in 1994, Ashcroft successfully ran for the open seat.

U.S. Senator

During his single six-year term in the Senate, Ashcroft served on the Senate Judiciary Committee and as chairman of the Constitution Committee. He sponsored seven proposed constitutional amendments, none of which won Congressional approval. The amendments would have banned abortions, prohibited burning the American flag, allowed line-item vetoes, required a balanced federal budget, required a super-majority vote in Congress for tax increases, established term limits for federal office holders, and made it easier to pass a constitutional amendment.

Ashcroft also attempted to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts for funding projects he considered indecent. He also blasted "activist" judges and opposed the appointment of David Satcher as Surgeon General because Satcher had a record of supporting abortion rights. A member of the National Rifle Association, Ashcroft also opposed nearly all gun control legislation. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Ashcroft was the first senator to call on President Clinton to resign if the allegations of misconduct proved true. Ashcroft's voting record in the Senate won him 100 percent approval ratings from the American Conservative Union and the Christian Coalition, and zero ratings from the Americans for Democratic Action, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Organization for Women.

Ashcroft toyed with the idea of seeking the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, but instead focused on re-election to the Senate. Ashcroft's opponent Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash three weeks before the 2000 election. State officials decided it was too late to reprint the ballots, so Ashcroft officially ran against a dead man. After Carnahan posthumously won the election, his widow agreed to accept the Senate appointment. Ashcroft did not challenge that arrangement, even though his defeat seemed to place him on the threshold of political oblivion.

Attorney General

President-elect George W. Bush resurrected Ashcroft's career on December 22, 2000, when he nominated Ashcroft to be U.S. attorney general. Ashcroft's nomination ran into major opposition in the Senate over his conservative religious and political beliefs, including his opposition to abortion. Ashcroft was confirmed, but the 42 votes against him in the Senate was the largest number ever cast against an attorney general's confirmation. Following the contentious confirmation, Ashcroft vowed to renew the war on drugs, reduce violence due to firearms, and combat discrimination.

In the war on terrorism that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Ashcroft was accused of creating an atmosphere in which any opposition to his policies was seen as unpatriotic, if not subversive. Under policies put in place by the Bush administration, suspected terrorists were to be held on the slightest of charges to keep them off the streets. In the past, even organized crime figures or suspected spies had been granted their liberties until they actually committed crimes.

Ashcroft, along with Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, emerged as one of the most powerful members of Bush's cabinet. Ashcroft became the administration's persona for the war on terrorism and took a number of controversial steps in its pursuit—including detaining over 1,000 people on charges not made public, deciding to monitor selected attorney-client conversations, and setting in place plans to try alleged war criminals in military tribunals.

Ashcroft continued to pursue his faith-based agenda as attorney general, even though he stated that he did not believe religious doctrine can or should be imposed. When he took over as attorney general in 2001, Ashcroft introduced prayer sessions in which up to 30 participants studied Bible passages and prayed. Ashcroft's sessions drew criticism for posing a conflict between church and state, until meetings with President Bush in the wake of the terrorist attacks pre-empted the prayer meetings.

In 2002, Ashcroft told Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, "[T]here are standards that are moral and spiritual and eternal that I want to live up to. And people who win the battle write the history, and they may or may not get it right. I want to do what's right in God's sight."

Not surprisingly, Ashcroft's presumption that he would be able to interpret God's wishes for others drew criticism. He caused a stir when he had curtains erected around two twelve-foot art deco statues in the Justice building, one of which portrayed a partially unclad figure, prompting charges of prudishness and intolerance from his critics. And he gave no sign that he was prepared to compromise on his views about abortion—his Justice Department asked a federal appeals court to uphold a law banning "partial birth" abortions.

Political Phoenix

Ashcroft established a well-deserved reputation for turning defeat into victory. He told Toobin: "When I lost the race for Congress, I became state auditor. When I lost the race for state auditor, I became attorney general. When I lost the race for national committee chairman, I became a United States senator. When I lost the race for senator, I became the Attorney General."

By April 2002, Ashcroft enjoyed a 76 percent approval rating, according to a Gallup poll. Although Ashcroft stated that he had retired from electoral politics, some analysts saw him as a successor to Vice-President Dick Cheney should Cheney's health become a problem before the 2004 election.


Ashcroft was the author of Lessons from a Father to His Son. He was the co-author with his wife Janet (who taught law at Howard University) of two college law textbooks. The Ashcrofts have three children, a daughter and two sons, and one grandchild. Ashcroft enjoyed spending holidays on his 150-acre farm on the outskirts of his hometown of Springfield.

Ashcroft also enjoyed playing the piano. In 2003, he told The American Enterprise, "I play the piano almost everyday, because it's a way to express ideas and to experiment. I also play the guitar a little bit, and the mandolin a little bit. Music, as I see it, is the study of relationships— tonal relationships—and in all of life, nothing is more important than relationships." Ashcroft is also an accomplished baritone; in the Senate, he was known as one of the Singing Senators, along with Trent Lott, Jim Jeffords, and Larry Craig.

Not without a sense of humor, Ashcroft told Toobin in the New Yorker, "There are only two things necessary in life—WD-40 and duct tape… . WD-40 for things that don't move that should, and duct tape for things that do move but shouldn't."


American Enterprise, January-February 2003.

New Yorker, April 15, 2002.

Time, May 28, 2001.


"Attorney General John Ashcroft," United States Department of Justice, (January 2003).

"Profile: John Ashcroft," BBC News, (January 2003). □

Ashcroft, John David

views updated Jun 08 2018


In 25 years, John Ashcroft ascended from assistant state attorney general for the state of Missouri to U.S. attorney general. The political road to the justice department was paved by this conservative right-wing Republican with his hard work and strong ethics.

John David Ashcroft was born on May 9, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. His family moved to rural Springfield, Missouri, when he was just a young boy. Springfield is the home of the Pentecostal Assembly of God Church, and since Ashcroft's father and grandfather were Pentecostal ministers, it seemed only natural that the family would make Springfield their home. While the church forbids smoking, drinking, and dancing, it does promote gospel singing. Ashcroft took up playing the guitar and singing gospel when he was young, and it was a passion of his ever after.

After high school, Ashcroft headed east to Yale where he received a degree in history in 1964. He then returned to the Midwest and studied at the University of Chicago Law School. There he met his later wife, Janet. They both graduated from the University of Chicago in 1967 and went on to teach business law at Southwest Missouri State University.

In 1972 Ashcroft decided to run for a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. While he lost the race, he still found his way into politics when he was named assistant attorney general for the state of Missouri in 1975 under then-attorney general, John Danforth. While working there, Ashcroft met future U.S. Supreme Court Justice clarence thomas.

In 1976 Danforth decided to run for the U.S. Senate, giving Ashcroft the opportunity to campaign for the soon-to-be vacated state attorney general position. Ashcroft won the election and, in this new role, established his conservative reputation when he vehemently opposed court-ordered school desegregation in St. Louis and Kansas City. While he could not please everybody, he managed to please many, and he was elected for another term, before then becoming the 50th governor of Missouri in 1984.

Ashcroft accomplished a great deal for the state of Missouri. He balanced budgets without increasing taxes. He also focused on welfare reform and education by imposing tougher testing requirements for student advancement. As a validation of these efforts, Ashcroft was reelected to a second term as governor with an impressive 65 percent of the vote. State law did not allow him to run for a third term.

"Our [anti-terrorist] efforts have been crafted carefully to avoid infringing on constitutional rights, while saving American lives."
—John Ashcroft

In 1994 Ashcroft again followed in the footsteps of John Danforth, who was retiring from the Senate. Ashcroft was elected to the U.S. Senate and sworn in at the beginning of 1995. While in Congress, Ashcroft proposed and supported very conservative legislation, most of which did not become law. He was pro-life, against gun control, and against affirmative action. He sponsored the Human Life Amendment, which defined life to begin at conception and

banned all abortions, including those involving incest or rape, except when needed to save the life of the mother. The legislation did not become law. He was also unsuccessful in his support for term limits for congressmen and prayer in schools. Ashcroft was, however, successful with his Charitable Choice provision, a component of the welfare reform legislation in 1996. The provision granted funding to religious organizations in order to provide social welfare programs.

In 1998 Ashcroft published a book, Lessons from a Father to His Son, about his father's preachings, his Christian faith, and how it influenced his life. Also in 1998 the Ronnie White confirmation hearings branded him by some as a racist. White was the first African American Missouri Supreme Court Justice. Then-president bill clinton nominated him to the federal bench. During White's confirmation hearings, Ashcroft focused on a dissent that White made in a capital punishment case and argued that White was soft on crime. Yet, White had actually voted to uphold the death penalty in 41 of the 59 cases that he heard on the bench, and some argued that Ashcroft attacked White because of his race. Ultimately, the Senate voted down White, making him the first federal judicial nominee to be defeated since robert bork. That same year, Ashcroft seriously considered running for the republican party nomination for U.S. president. After a short-lived campaign, however, he withdrew his name and supported george w. bush.

In 2000 Ashcroft ran once again for his Senate position, this time against Missouri governor mel carnahan. Carnahan died with his son in a plane crash three weeks before the election but still won the vote by a slim margin. Ashcroft was a gracious loser, and Carnahan's widow was appointed to replace her deceased husband in the Senate.

In 2001 Ashcroft was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by Congress for the position of U.S. attorney general, one of the most powerful positions in the country. As attorney general, Ashcroft became head of the Justice Department and would oversee many powerful segments of the federal government, including the drug enforcement administration, the federal bureau of investigation, and the u.s. marshals.

The september 11th attacks in 2001 caused an enormous change in the way Americans viewed the responsibilities of the nation's top law enforcement officials. In the aftermath of the attacks, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act and the usa patriot act, legislation

that gave the Justice Department unprecedented latitude in dealing with suspected terrorists. In 2002 and early 2003, Ashcroft has issued numerous regulations dealing with the issue of domestic security and the tracking of foreign nationals including orders that give FBI agents and U.S. marshals permission to arrest such persons for immigration violations when there is not sufficient evidence to hold them on criminal charges. The Justice Department has stepped-up surveillance methods including the issuance of "national security letters" that mandate businesses to turn over electronic records of finances and other information. Ashcroft has also signed more than 170 classified "emergency foreign intelligence warrants" which allow 72 hours of wiretaps and searches of persons viewed as national security threats before they need to be reviewed and approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Groups representing Muslim immigrants, numerous civil liberties advocates, religious groups, and others have protested much of the DOJ activity. One program that did not pass muster with Congress was the Terrorism Information and Prevention System to be known by its acronym as "Operation TIPS." The program was planned to train millions of American workers including truck drivers, mail carriers, train conductors, and employees of utilities to look for and report any suspicious material or activity to a new FBI database.

Other Ashcroft initiatives that have provoked controversy include the DOJ's challenge to an Oregon law that permits physician-assisted suicide and a California law that permits the possession of marijuana for medicinal use. In addition, Ashcroft filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of ending the University of Michigan's affirmative action admission program. Ashcroft has continued to advocate protection for the rights of gun owners while pressing for more severe punishments of those who commit capital crimes using guns or other weapons. Despite recent state moratoriums on capital punishment, exonerations of death row defendants in over 100 cases, and recent Supreme Court decisions which banned execution of mentally retarded inmates and which overturned cases where judges rather than juries had imposed the death penalty, Attorney General Ashcroft has overruled U.S. attorneys who had decided not to seek the death penalty, and he has approved death penalty prosecutions in nearly half of all federal cases where capital punishment might be applicable.

further readings

Annual Accountability Report. 2002. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice.

Branch-Brioso, Karen. 2003. "Ashcroft Reports Progress against Terrorism with Ridge and Mueller, He Tells Congress of Arrests, Better Information Sharing." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (March 5).

Cloud, John. 2001. "General on the March: John Ashcroft Wants to Mobilize the Justice Department to Fight Terror. Is He Going Too Far?" Time (November 19).

Fechter, Michael. 2002. "Ashcroft Defends New Wiretap Powers." The Tampa Tribune (November 21).

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