He kept our homeland safe from terrorists. That is the legacy of John Ashcroft’s service as attorney general. No matter what else he achieves in his already tremendously accomplished career, history will remember him for this. Americans owe Mr. Ashcroft a great debt of gratitude for the central role he played in securing our neighborhoods and towns in the three years following September 11, 2001.
Unfortunately, statesmen such as John Ashcroft are rare. Like Ronald Reagan, John Ashcroft emerged out of Middle America believing in, and exemplifying, Middle American values. Like Ronald Reagan, his unshakable commitment to these values made him a favorite object of ridicule among the jaded media elites of the Northeastern liberal establishment. Like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Ashcroft never backed down.
To measure Mr. Ashcroft’s success in securing the home front in the war against terrorism, set his record beside a yardstick put down by one of his sharpest critics, outgoing Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat.
On Feb. 1, 2001, Mr. Graham voted against confirming Mr. Ashcroft as attorney general. In the months immediately before, and for more than a year after, the 2001 terrorist attacks, Mr. Graham himself served in a key national security position as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. On Feb. 23, 2002, he appeared on CNN’s “Novak, Hunt & Shields” and, with all the prestige and authority of his office, confirmed an alarming threat to our domestic security.
Co-host Al Hunt asked Mr. Graham: “Mr. Chairman, you have said that another attack on the United States, unfortunately, is probable. Would the source of that, do you think, most likely be the sleepers of al Qaeda, or do you think it’s another source?”
Mr. Graham answered: “The estimate is that there are 100 or more al Qaeda operatives inside the United States, some who have been here for a considerable period of time, all of whom went through a training process to prepare them to carry out terrorist plots when they were called upon to do so. That probably is the most immediate threat of a terrorist attack against the United States. But there are also maybe a dozen or more other international terrorist organizations, some of which also have agents inside the United States.”
It took only 19 al Qaeda sleepers to murder more Americans than died at Pearl Harbor. Mr. Graham told the world on national television he believed more than 5 times that number of al Qaeda sleepers were still in the United States more than five months after the September 11, 2001, attack.
But we have not suffered another attack.
Given his own assessment of our predicament three years ago, Bob Graham ought to be calling today for a monument to be raised to the attorney general he voted not to confirm.
And what happened to all those terrorists Mr. Graham talked about? Were they phantoms — like the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) the CIA (under Bob Graham’s congressional oversight) mistakenly believed were stockpiled in Iraq?
No, we may not have found WMD in Iraq. But we did find terrorists in the United States.
You may not have seen Dan Rather and CBS News make a major issue of it. It may not have hit Page One of the New York Times as often as the story of a few U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But the record shows John Ashcroft’s Justice Department tracked down, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned numerous terrorists who threatened America on American soil.
Six men in Lackawanna, N.Y., pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges, including “providing material support to the al Qaeda terrorist organization.” Another nine men were convicted for taking part in what the Justice Department termed “the Virginia Jihad network.” A leader of this group was convicted of “conspiracy to levy war against the United States.”
Iyman Faris, an Ohio-based truck driver, scouted the Brooklyn Bridge for a potential al Qaeda hit. Mr. Ashcroft’s Justice Department caught, convicted and put him in jail.
When Mr. Bush first nominated Mr. Ashcroft, Time magazine derided the choice. Said Time: “The teetotaling son of a famed Pentecostal minister, Ashcroft, a onetime Missouri governor so strict that he refused to dance at his own inaugural ball, is the kind of hard-line conservative who makes liberal toes curl.”
Now those liberals better uncurl their toes, get down on their knees, and pray that the next attorney general has the moral courage to ignore them as thoroughly as John Ashcroft did.
Terence P. Jeffrey is a nationally syndicated columnist.