John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft
(Courtesy Department of Justice)

As the nation's chief law enforcement officer during the Bush Administration's first term, Attorney General John Ashcroft inherited an enormous responsibility after the 9-11 attacks: to protect Americans from terrorists while safeguarding civil liberties. Ashcroft has many critics who insist he failed to strike the right balance. Ashcroft disagrees, saying constitutional protections remain strong. He led the administration's drive to push through the USA Patriot Act in the fall of 2001. That law undid a generation of restraints on the gathering and sharing of domestic intelligence. Reporters Robert O'Harrow and John Biewen spoke with Ashcroft in his office at the Justice Department in July of 2004.

Robert O'Harrow: 9/11, to go back there, was a pivot point in American history. I wonder if you could say briefly your take on what changed when the planes hit?

John Ashcroft: It became pretty clear to us that we were no longer insulated in a way that many Americans had thought we were insulated by the great oceans. And the kind of crime - and it was an act of war and also a criminal act as well - that was inflicted on the American people was in some ways unique, because those who committed the crime sought to extinguish themselves in the commission of the crime. So the traditional ways we prevent crime, with the threat of punishment and seeking out the perpetrator of the crime, and then making an effort somehow to make an example of the perpetrator with punishment, and the operation of the system of law to bring people to justice, didn't have the same kind of value in a setting where the person plans to die in the commission of the crime.

That and the fact that we lost close to three thousand people in the commission of that crime meant that we couldn't afford the idea of allowing crimes to be committed, and then pursuing the perpetrators to punish them as a means of securing the society. That in some circumstances and as it related to some kinds of behavior, terrorism in particular, we needed to be ahead of the crime and to disrupt it, prevent it, rather than to somehow remediate it after the crime and its injury had already been inflicted on the culture.

O'Harrow: How enduring is that change that you just described? Is that just a change of perception or is that a change in the level of risk, and how enduring is it?

Ashcroft: I think it's a very significant change in our understanding of what it takes to secure America, and it's being translated into very serious changes in institutions. The FBI for example is far more invested in intelligence gathering as it relates to terrorism than we were in prior times. We have more agents devoted to it, and the devotion of the agents in this respect is largely anticipatory.

If prosecution is the ability to tell what happened to the jury and to reassemble the pieces of a specific scenario so as to establish the truth of what happened, that's difficult. But prevention is trying to assemble the pieces of scenarios that haven't yet come into focus. And out of all the good things and all the things that might be coming into focus in a culture, things to happen in the future, you've got to figure out before the picture actually gets fully made which ones are the bad pictures, and you've got to interrupt those, and it's a much more difficult task. And so when law enforcement agencies and agencies charged with securing the liberties and the safety of the American people have that task, they have a much more difficult task than they did previously.

John Biewen: One of the things that we're looking at in this project is, in this context of a new focus on prevention, is the government's new level of embrace of information technology, in particular working with companies that gather and amass data on people in the country like ChoicePoint and Acxiom and the new kinds of relationships that have formed since 9/11. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of that approach to the role of companies like that in protecting national security now?

Ashcroft: I do see technology as helping us significantly. And one of the ways that technology helps us, particularly at the Bureau, for example, is helping us have a central location for the information that we have in law enforcement. We have someone in southwestern United States who has a case and it has particular characteristics, and as long as the file was located there and exclusively there and the people in the northwestern or even north central or in Washington D.C. didn't know about that file, we couldn't detect and understand similarities.

And some of the technologies that have been developed in the private sector to link similar circumstances and to identify patterns. These are things now that can be applied to the information that we have in our various law enforcement enterprises so that we can say, 'Hey, what's happening in that part of the country in law enforcement is being mirrored in some ways by something happening somewhere else. Maybe these are related circumstances, they may reflect a plot that deserves our attention.' Technology then can do in the law enforcement community in many ways what it has done in the commercial community to help us identify similarities and fact patterns in the information which we have gained and gathered but it hasn't yet been coordinated and it hasn't been understood, in the way it would relate. So the ability to develop links, the ability to develop relationships, to "connect the dots" is the phrase that got hot - is an important one.

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