John Ashcroft's First Year as Attorney General

A report by People For the American Way Foundation


In January 2001, a remarkably broad coalition of civil rights and other public interest organizations opposed the confirmation of John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General. People For the American Way helped lead that effort, and produced more than 80 pages of reports analyzing John Ashcroft's long public record. Those reports documented a career notable for its commitment to right-wing ideology, its lack of demonstrated commitment to fairness and equal opportunity, and its insensitivity to the rights of women and minorities.

One year later, Ashcroft has done much to ensure his legacy as a right-wing ideologue who is willing to bend the Constitution and laws to his worldview, disregard the constitutional principle of checks and balances, and endanger Americans' basic rights and freedoms. This People For the American Way Foundation report reviews his actions both before and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that have an impact on a range of civil rights and civil liberties.

Grassroots opposition to Ashcroft's confirmation and the "no" votes of 42 senators were based on Ashcroft's public record as U.S. Senator and as Missouri state attorney general and governor. His 25-year record demonstrated clearly that Ashcroft was the wrong person to lead the Department of Justice. Today his public record is one year longer and the evidence is even stronger. John Ashcroft's tenure as attorney general threatens to reverse the nation's progress toward the goal of equal justice under the law and usher in a new era of civil liberties restrictions and civil rights abuses.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were a watershed for the nation in many ways, and for John Ashcroft as well. Ashcroft's response to those attacks has been marked by a troubling willingness to amend our laws and Constitution by executive fiat and by a consistent disrespect for the role of the Congress and the courts in reviewing executive branch actions. He proposed legislation to grant extraordinary new powers to federal agencies and attempted to stifle congressional consideration of its impact. He then initiated or supported executive branch orders, without consulting Congress, that expanded executive branch powers even beyond those granted in the sweeping anti-terrorism legislation.

With the powers he was granted, and those he has asserted, Ashcroft has overseen, for example, the detention of more than 1,200 individuals, many for extended periods of time, while stubbornly resisting the release of significant information about detainees to the public or the Congress. Such actions have drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, and from former FBI officials with experience in fighting terrorists. A number of former officials, including William Webster, a Missouri Republican who led both the FBI and CIA under President Ronald Reagan, have suggested that Ashcroft's policies are not only endangering civil liberties but are also threatening effective law enforcement infiltration of terrorist organizations.1

Also damaging has been Ashcroft's intolerance of criticism and his willingness to engage in the politics of intimidation. He attempted to bully Congress into swift passage of the administration's proposals by publicly insinuating that members of Congress were making America susceptible to future attacks. After the anti-terrorism bill had become law, he stated in congressional testimony that people who raise concerns about the impact of his actions on civil liberties "aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies." That kind of statement is meant to silence critics and is particularly disturbing coming from the man charged with upholding Americans' constitutional rights, including the right to dissent.

Ashcroft's responses to Sept. 11 have not been the only troubling aspects of his first year; indeed his actions throughout the year on a range of issues have also been disturbing. Well before September, Ashcroft's actions in office were having an impact on a broad range of issues, including selecting judicial nominees, freedom of speech, religious liberty, reproductive choice, equal opportunity, gun control, and more. In his first weeks and months as attorney general, for example, Ashcroft led Bush administration efforts to fill key Justice Department and White House legal jobs with right-wing activists affiliated with the Federalist Society. That team (see Appendix A) affects legal policies and decisions on a wide range of issues, including positions staked out by the federal government in critical cases coming before the federal appeals courts and the Supreme Court, such as upcoming cases on private school vouchers and affirmative action in higher education.

Ashcroft and the rest of the administration's right-wing dream team, which has been called the most conservative in modern history, are now playing a central role in efforts to seat enough right-wing judges to complete a decades-long campaign by the far right to achieve complete ideological dominance in the federal judiciary. If that campaign is successful, we will witness the federal judiciary turning back the clock on seven decades of legal and social justice progress, dramatically affecting the daily lives of all Americans, their children, and their grandchildren.

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