If Ashcroft steps down, who will replace him?

Freedom Newspapers

If the Washington rumor mills are credible, Attorney General John Ashcroft is likely to step down, possibly by the end of the year. This would not be surprising or altogether unwelcome.

Ashcroft aides have been hinting for months that he was ready to leave a job that has worn him down — though some said he was “energized” by the election results. He was hospitalized earlier this year and had his gall bladder removed.

The White House knows he has been a lightning rod for criticism — often rightly so in our view — over detaining Muslim immigrants without charges, interpreting provisions of the Freedom of Information Act in favor of secrecy, seeking more power to enable government surveillance under the Patriot Act and other statutes, and much more. His responses have often been less than deft.

Speculation about a successor is already rampant. Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani? A spokesperson said it wouldn’t happen. Former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who took a job in August as senior vice president and chief counsel of PepsiCo? PepsiCo said Thursday he is “fully engaged and committed” to his new job.

How about former Montana governor and Republican National Committee chairman Mark Racicot? Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham? A Justice Department deputy with experience but no name recognition?

One of the most important qualifications for a new attorney general is a firm commitment to the letter and spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions regarding prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and U.S. citizens classified as “enemy combatants.” “A state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens,” wrote Sandra Day O’Connor.

In some guise or another, we are likely in for a long-term struggle with terrorists who seek to do harm to the United States. It is crucial, especially insofar as the struggle is seen as a contest between civilization and barbarity, to uphold civilized norms of respect for due process and the presumption of innocence.

Some argue that cutting constitutional corners is the only way to be effective against terrorists. To the contrary, if anything, the United States should bend over backwards to respect the rights of those it apprehends, to dot every judicial “i” and cross every procedural “t” to demonstrate how a civilized country conducts itself. If we give up our liberties in the face of terrorists who want to destroy our way of life, we hand the terrorists a victory.

That’s how any candidate for attorney general should think.