Ashcroft has critics howling once again

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 2002, 12:00am

To some of John Ashcroft's critics, he has become America's Attorney-Generalissimo. To others, he is simply President George W. Bush's ambassador to the right.

Certainly as Mr Bush's 'new war' continues, Mr Ashcroft is raising eyebrows for more than just his hard-boiled approach to the domestic fight against terrorism.

As Attorney-General, Mr Ashcroft is responsible for the Justice Department and the FBI and now wields sweeping new powers, from the ability to eavesdrop on Americans to detaining 'non-citizens' without charge in the hunt for al-Qaeda operatives. Hundreds of South Asian and Middle Eastern men remain in indefinite detention across America without due process, most on minor immigration violations.

Mr Ashcroft has shown little desire to acknowledge critics who fear his 'round-ups' are threatening America's much-vaunted civil liberties. Any Americans who object, he told the US Senate, 'only aid terrorists'.

As stern as his leadership may be, it is however accompanied by some intriguing public turns. Recently Mr Ashcroft's staff have spent US$8,000 (HK$62,000) on covering up the bared breast of the Statue of Justice - a figure that has adorned a department courtyard since the 1930s.

Mr Ashcroft was reportedly embarrassed by such a public display of the female form.

A devout member of the Assemblies of God fundamentalist sect, Mr Ashcroft has instituted regular Bible study and sing-alongs in his office, despite the misgivings of his staff.

His anti-abortion, anti-gay and pro-gun and pro-death penalty beliefs made him the target of political opponents of the Bush administration on taking office more than a year ago. In lengthy hearings in the US Congress, Mr Ashcroft vowed he would not allow his personal views to colour his role as America's chief law enforcer.

After silencing his critics with a balanced and measured, if low-key, role before September 11, he is making them howl once again.

Even Republican insiders acknowledge Mr Ashcroft's private beliefs cannot be fully divorced from his public persona, noting the strength of conviction within this minister's son. 'He is a very forceful character, very difficult to budge once his mind is made up on a policy,' one veteran Republican said.