Ashcroft agenda includes more than just terrorism

Thursday, January 10, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Before the terrorist attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft was pursuing an agenda that made those on the right smile.

In a post-Sept. 11 America where the public backs stern law enforcement, Ashcroft is pushing ahead -- some say with greater zeal than ever -- with the kinds of right-leaning policies that have marked his career. He's standing up for gun rights, opposing assisted suicide, promoting out-of-court settlements with tobacco companies and Microsoft.

Liberals didn't expect Ashcroft to shed his conservative cloak when he walked into the Justice Department. But they say that since the attacks, he has more aggressively pursued conservative policies with little or no congressional oversight.

"I think there was a tremendous acceleration," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.

Susan Dryden, spokesman for Ashcroft's Justice Department, said the agency's priority since Sept. 11 has been to prevent terrorists from killing more Americans.

"While we have thought outside the box to come up with the legal tools necessary to combat terrorism, we have not thought outside the Constitution," Dryden said.

Worked on image

Ashcroft worked to moderate his image after a bruising confirmation hearing in which Senate Democrats grilled him about his conservative views on abortion and civil liberties. But there was no softpedaling at last month's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing as he doggedly defended relaxed wiretaps, monitoring attorney-client conversations, military tribunals and other anti-terrorism measures.

"He softened his rhetoric for a time, but I think he's back with a lot of punch," said Paul Weyrich, president of the conservative Free Congress Foundation.

Not all conservatives support everything he's done.

Civil libertarians on the right as well as the left say sweeping new anti-terrorism rules weaken constitutional guarantees. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., has become an outspoken Republican opponent of the Bush administration's efforts to expand law enforcement powers, saying they are "dismantling carefully crafted, constitutionally protected safeguards."

Ashcroft contends, "Our efforts have been carefully crafted to avoid infringing on constitutional rights while saving American lives."

Dominated by war

The war has dominated the last few months of Ashcroft's first year at Justice, but he's put his fingerprints on other issues as well:

Opposed to assisted suicide, Ashcroft said in November that the federal government would suspend or revoke the licenses of doctors who prescribe federally controlled drugs to patients who want to use them to die. A federal judge in Oregon has temporarily blocked implementation of Ashcroft's decision.

Ashcroft told Congress in June that a department review showed no evidence of racial bias in the application of the federal death penalty, though most of those on federal death row are minorities.

Ashcroft assembled a cadre of conservative lawyers in top jobs at the department. He also named three black attorneys to high-level posts.

He set up a legal team to explore ways to craft an out-of-court settlement of the government's lawsuit against tobacco companies. He also helped forge a settlement of a Clinton-era antitrust suit against software giant Microsoft.

In response to an inquiry from the National Rifle Association, Ashcroft wrote he believes the Constitution gives Americans the right to own firearms. That reversed the position of the Clinton administration, which argued that the Constitution provided such a right for groups, not individuals.

He sought to shorten, from 90 days to 24 hours, the length of time the government can keep information compiled during background checks for firearms purchases. That was a partial victory for gun owners who say the information amounts to a national registry.

After Sept. 11, he prevented the FBI from using that gun information in terrorist investigations. Ashcroft says he was bound by laws and Congress should change them if it doesn't like them.

The Justice Department has been a "bull in a china shop when it comes to civil liberties, stretching their authority past the breaking point," contends Mathew Nosanchuk, director of the antigun Violence Policy Center. "But the Ashcroft Justice Department walks on eggshells when it comes to the special interests of the gun lobby."

Counters Weyrich: "I think he's appreciative of the fact that the public appears to be with him, but I don't think he is emboldened in the sense that 'Oh, now I'm going to really move forward and stick it to them."'

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: