Saying that John Ashcroft was a controversial attorney general would be as understated as stating that Ohio's electoral votes were only slightly relevant in our most recent presidential election. Although many believe that the job of attorney general should never have been his in the first place, his recent departure marks the end of the most ideologically driven tenure the Department of Justice has seen in decades.
The Wall Street Journal once wrote that, "May we trust a man like John Ashcroft, whose outlook appears to be saturated by faith, to serve as U.S. attorney general?" After all, Ashcroft was once awarded an honorary degree from racially "retrograde" and unabashedly evangelical Bob Jones University; as well as having once praised confederate general Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
The editors of Esquire magazine once wrote that, "If there is one thing that always comes out of a terrible tragedy, it is really dumb legislation." Although there are many other similarly draconian sections of the USA PATRIOT Act, section 412 of USA PATRIOT allowed Ashcroft to round up and imprison over 1,200 Muslim and Arab men based solely on pretextual immigration violations and refused to disclose their identity, give them access to lawyers or even contact with their families.
Even though his own Inspector General reprimanded him for his policies and not even one terrorist was captured during this dragnet, Ashcroft had the self-righteous audacity to proclaim during congressional testimony that anyone who raised concerns about his actions would "aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies."
Amidst the litany of unconstitutional policies created during his watch, Ashcroft also helped draft the presidential order creating secret military tribunals which bypasses the U.S. court system and which contains significant due process constitutional violations. Another severing blow to the carte blanche which Ashcroft had bestowed upon himself was when federal judge James Robertson, a former Navy lieutenant, recently ruled that President Bush's military tribunal proceedings were invalidly unconstitutional and also ran afoul of international law.
It was also on Ashcroft's watch that we saw the debacle of Brandon Mayfield, the Oregon attorney whose 'fingerprints' ostensibly matched prints found on evidence in the Madrid train station bombings earlier this year. Aside from the fact that a Scotland Yard fingerprint expert found any claim of a fingerprint match "horrendous", part of the evidence used to detain Mayfield for two weeks were "miscellaneous Spanish documents" which the FBI found in his home. The New York Times reported that these "documents" were later identified as his children's Spanish homework. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done.
In typical Ashcroftian manner, there was a grandiose press conference carried by every media outlet from here to Zanzibar claiming that yet another 'terrorist' had been captured. Kent Mayfield, Brandon's brother, said that Mayfield's only crime was that "... [H]e is of the Muslim faith and because he is not super happy with the Bush administration. So if that's a crime, well you can burn half of us."
Throughout his tenure as attorney general of the United States, many Americans saw John Ashcroft continuously use the constitution as a doormat to wipe the mud from his wingtip shoes. Author Earl Hutchinson was right when he said that Ashcroft was the perfect "hatchet man" on civil rights enforcement for President Bush. Although any replacement would be better for the rule of law than Ashcroft's status quo; we must come to terms with the fact that John Ashcroft's resignation marks the end of the most ideological, theocratic and controversial Justice Department administration since our last Draco, the late J. Edgar Hoover.
Arsalan T. Iftikhar is national legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest American Muslim civil rights and advocacy group in Washington.