- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The role of the Justice Department is to preserve individual freedoms, not take them away, Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday during a visit to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.

“We respect what people can do if their rights are protected, their responsibilities cultivated, and we make sure their rights are not infringed,” he said to several hundred lawyers and staffers in the office.

Mr. Ashcroft has become a lightning rod for criticism since the passage of the Patriot Act in October 2001. Civil liberties groups say the law, which gives federal law enforcement extended powers for wiretapping, surveillance and interrogating suspects, gives the government too much power over individuals.

Mr. Ashcroft said he was able “dispel some myths” about the original Patriot Act when testifying earlier this month before a House Judiciary Committee considering a second act.

He said people’s fears about the government spying on them are alarmist.

“Some people cannot start their cars and say, ‘Oh, it’s the Patriot Act,’” Mr. Ashcroft said.

He also said the war on terror has weakened al Qaeda but has not destroyed the terrorist network, which carried out the September 11 attacks.

“Al Qaeda has been dealt a disabling blow, but it’s not disabled or destroyed,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “We hope to upgrade the level of their disability, but there’s no doubt that while we’re making progress the terrorist adjusts.”

Mr. Ashcroft said he visited the U.S. Attorney’s Office to hear about what is happening at the “street level” of the Justice Department.

Among the stops were a visit with Roscoe C. Howard Jr., U.S. attorney for the District, and a tour of the critical-incident center, where an anti-terrorism officer showed him how every person who enters the U.S. Attorney’s Office is photographed and tracked through the building.

“Excellent, thank you for working,” “good deal” and “good to be with you,” Mr. Ashcroft said repeatedly as he shook hands with some of the 700 lawyers and staffers in the department.

He also told a group of staffers in the department’s transnational division that their developing relationships with foreign governments are crucial to helping the United States track terrorists who slip among countries and continents with relative ease.

Mr. Ashcroft has visited more than 50 of the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices in the country. Last week, he visited offices in Hartford, Conn., Concord, N.H., and Portland, Maine. He goes to Nashville next week.

“I believe [the U.S.] is the best place to be,” he said. “We respect human dignity, freedom, creativity, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals in ways that are profoundly rewarded.”

Mr. Ashcroft said he did not know whether a trip has been scheduled to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, where al Qaeda operatives were reported to be planning to blow up gas stations.

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