The attacks of Sept. 11 fundamentally changed the way the United States should approach domestic security, former United States Attorney General John Ashcroft ’64 argued before an audience of about 150 Thursday night.
During a talk at the Law School Auditorium, Ashcroft offered an unapologetic retrospective on his stint as the nation’s chief lawyer under President George W. Bush ’68. Ashcroft acknowledged that his reorganization of the Justice Department after the attacks of Sept. 11 was highly controversial, but he defended his decisions as necessary to protect the individual liberties of Americans.
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“We [thought] outside of the box, but not outside of the Constitution,” Ashcroft said of the Justice Department following Sept. 11.
Ashcroft set the stage for his defense of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism tactics by arguing that as weapons grew more lethal, the United States faced threats from an increasing number of non-state actors. The failure of the United States to respond to this paradigm shift, Ashcroft said, led to the 2001 attacks.
Faced with President Bush’s charge to “never let [Sept. 11] happen again,” Ashcroft responded by examining the United States criminal code to find appropriate statutes used in fighting domestic crime that could be extended to combat internationally based terrorism, he said. The result of this sweep was the controversial Patriot Act of 2001, which has been criticized by liberals for its infringement on civil liberties.
Ashcroft defended the act’s constitutionality, arguing that the act merely extended statutes already in the criminal code to the realm of foreign intelligence.
“The roving wiretap was already enacted back in the 1980s, so we extended its use against terrorists,” Ashcroft said.
The former attorney general also defended the Justice Department’s shift towards prevention of terrorism, away from its traditional focus on prosecution. Prosecuting dead terrorists, Ashcroft said, is a waste of time.
“It’s a Pyrrhic victory to punish people who want to extinguish themselves in the commission of a crime,” he said of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Despite the criticism he received for the overhaul of the Justice Department, Ashcroft — who served as attorney general from 2001 until his resignation in 2005 — said his actions stemmed from the need to protect Americans’ right to security and liberty. And liberty comes first.
“Liberty is the central premise,” he said. “Security for liberty.”
The day after Ashcroft announced his resignation in November 2004, the New York Times editorial board, among others, criticized Ashcroft’s ineffectiveness.
“The investigation and prosecution of domestic terrorism cases have produced little since 9/11 except dismissed charges, misidentified suspects and minor convictions of minor figures,” the editorial board wrote.
But the two law students interviewed at the lecture did not agree with such an assessment, and, instead, took a more positive view of Ashcroft’s policies.
Jed Brinton LAW ’09 said Ashcroft’s reference to the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty reminded him of the importance of Ashcroft’s fight against terrorism.
“American may draw the dregs of other societies,” Brinton said. “But because of the freedoms offered by its environment, people can succeed.”
Claire McCusker LAW ’09 said she appreciated hearing a viewpoint on civil liberties drawn from actual experience rather than just academic discourse.
The Yale Federalist Society and the Young America’s Foundation co-sponsored the lecture, the first of the Irving Brown lecture series at the Yale Law School.