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Former Attorney General John Ashcroft

Background on Crimes against the American People and US Constitution


Attorney General John Ashcroft's Assault on Civil Liberties (Updated September 2003) (10/30/2002)

Since becoming Attorney General John Ashcroft:

Has had a negative impact on civil liberties issues ranging from reproductive choice, religious liberty, freedom of speech, criminal defendants' rights and equal opportunity.

Has worked to undermine and eliminate the authority of the federal judiciary to review certain actions of the Attorney General and federal law enforcement agencies.

Has appointed individuals who have poor civil rights/liberties records to high-level DOJ positions.

Has not conferred with Congress or interest groups before attempting to undo settled areas of civil rights and civil liberties law.

Has demonstrated a disregard for court orders that do not favor the DOJ
Bold and Regressive Steps to Violate Civil Liberties in the Wake of September 11

Pressured Congress to hurriedly enact his legislation, the USA Patriot Act, which gave astonishing powers to federal agencies:

The Act dramatically increases the government's surveillance, search-and-seizure and wiretapping authority.

The Act greatly expanded government policing powers, even in cases unrelated to terrorism.

The Act allows for the sharing of secret information on American citizens among federal agencies.

During Congressional testimony, asserted that anyone who raised concerns about his actions would ""aid terrorists"" and ""give ammunition to America's enemies,"" statements which are antithetical to the spirit of the First Amendment right to dissent.

Authorized DOJ officials to monitor the discussions that attorneys have with clients who are in federal custody, including those detained, but not charged with a criminal offense in violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

Rounded up and imprisoned over 1200 men of Middle Eastern descent based largely on pretextual immigration violations and refused to disclose their identity and location and the reason for their detention. The detainees have been denied fundamental due process rights.

Sought to question roughly 8,000 men of Middle Eastern descent, who are legal residents of the U.S., a flagrant form of racial profiling.

Imposed a policy of selectively enforcing deportation orders against men from Middle Eastern countries.

Formed regulations that deny federal compensation to the partners and non-biological children of lesbian, gay and bisexual victims of September 11.

Helped draft the presidential order creating secret military tribunals which bypasses the U.S. court system and contains significant due process violations. Allows for the imposition of the death penalty.

Reversed the presumption of openness that is an underpinning the Freedom of Information Act by supporting agency decisions to withhold information if there is a sound legal basis for doing so, thereby rejecting the Reno position that information ought to be released under FOIA unless such release would be harmful.

Indicated that he is considering relaxing domestic guidelines that prohibit the federal law enforcement agencies from spying on First Amendment-protected activities.

Has called for the use of local police for enforcement of immigration laws.

Has asked Neighborhood Watch groups to work with the federal government to identify terrorists.

Has asked local law enforcement to submit proposals seeking federal funds to expand their capacity to identify and spy on suspected terrorists in local communities.

Initiated a project in August of 2002 called Operation TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System) that would recruit and train 1 million volunteers (including postal workers, utility personnel and the like) in 10 cities who would be encouraged to report suspicious terrorist activity.

Directed all federal prosecutors not to agree to judges' downward departures from the federal sentencing guidelines except in rare cases. In addition, Ashcroft requires that prosecutors, within 14 days, report when a judge imposes a downward departure from the guidelines.

Continues to misrepresent and misled the American public about the scope and impact of the USA Patriot Act, through his Patriot Act Tour. Ashcroft will visit 16 states and 18 cities for three weeks during his Patriot Act Tour to shore up support for the legislation that was passed in October 2001 as well as laying the groundwork for the introduction of the Victory Act.

Encouraged the 93 US Attorneys to lobby members of Congress who voted for an amendment that would prohibit DOJ funds to be used to enforcement ""sneak and peak"" warrants. The US Attorneys were also asked to turn out law enforcement officers and the citizens to community meetings around the country as well as write op-eds in local papers in support of the USA Patriot Act. This request was made to coincide with Ashcroft's Patriot Act Tour.

Further restricted DOJ's centralized control over plea-bargaining of cases by federal prosecutors.
Undermining the Effective Enforcement of Civil Rights Laws

Said that he believes that ""there is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty,"" despite various studies to the contrary, including one from the DOJ itself.

Considered releasing the Adam's Mark Hotel chain from a racial discrimination court ordered settlement, which would set an unacceptable precedent in public accommodations law.

Abandoned a landmark civil rights case against the Philadelphia transit system. The transit system used a harsh physical test that has nothing to do with the job requirements, but excludes nearly all women applicants from transit police positions.

Has failed to bring any new cases against any police departments for police misconduct or abuse. Is attempting to change the definition of racial profiling in a way that would undermine future litigation.

Undercut minority-voting rights by failing to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act in Mississippi.

Under his leadership, DOJ has brought only one new case for civil rights violations in the workplace.

Said that the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine is ""proper,"" making DOJ one of the few groups that clings to this position.

Justice Department determined that the Monterey County, CA plan to reduce the number of polling places for the Oct. 7 recall election compiled with the federal Voting Rights Act. This decision further frustrates efforts to provide access to voting facilities in a county with a history of low voter turnout and racial and ethnic discrimination.

Released racial profiling guidelines that were little more than rhetorical smoke and mirrors. The policy guidelines provide no rights or remedies and include a broad and largely undefined exception when ""national security"" concerns come into play.
Other Concerns
Eliminated a pilot program that provided federal money to pay for DNA testing to exonerate innocent inmates.

Issued an order that certified federal agents to repeal the licenses of any doctor who prescribed lethal drugs for terminally ill patients, an express challenge to Oregon law.

Has blurred the line between church and state by conducting daily sessions of prayer and Bible study at the DOJ. (According to a recent report in the New Yorker, these sessions have not been occurring since September 11.)

Has been a major proponent of Bush's faith based initiative. Has worked to create a legal theory that would withstand a constitutional challenge to direct federal funding of religious groups including churches, synagogues and mosques.

Refused to meet with civil liberties groups as well as fellow Republicans regarding concerns about potential civil liberties violations in the Patriot Act.

In the government's case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the DOJ announced that it would defy a court order to allow the defendant to depose a material witness. DOJ officials have stated that if they lose this issue on appeal, they will simply remove the case to a military tribunal. This approach clearly illustrates the DOJ operating with a predetermined verdict, and points to a willingness to disregard the Judiciary when it suits them.

Ashcroft violated a federal judge's gag order in a terrorism case. US District Court Judge Rosen has given Ashcroft until September 12th to explain why he should not be required to appear in front of the judge regarding this violation.

Continues to use demagoguery to intimidate those who would question his policies. He has now called the amendment that would prohibit DOJ funds to be used to enforcement ""sneak and peak"" warrants the ""Terrorist Tip-off Amendment.""
*Prepared by the staff of the ACLU Washington Office and update September 5, 2003.

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.

Read the full report:

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