Pubdate: Sat, 01 Mar 2003
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2003 Associated Press
Author: Curt Anderson


WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General John Ashcroft has shifted gears in 2003, 
moving the public face of the Justice Department away from an all-consuming 
fight against terrorism and raising the profile of other agency investigations.

In two days this week, Ashcroft held a news conference to announce 
indictments against 55 people in a drug paraphernalia crackdown, gave a 
speech about international sex trafficking and held another news conference 
to outline fraud charges against eight current or former executives of 
Qwest Communications International.

These events unfolded as Bush administration officials debated behind the 
scenes whether to reduce the nation's terror risk level from high to 
elevated. The level was lowered Thursday.

Some see Ashcroft's efforts as an effort to divert attention from the mixed 
results in the war on terror. A recent government study, for example, 
contended that half the terror convictions last year were labeled 
terrorism-related improperly by the Justice Department.

Michael Greenberger, a Justice official during the Clinton administration 
and now a law professor at the University of Maryland, said the 
department's recent focus on nonterror crime "sounds like it is trying to 
draw people away from terrorism because the arrests just haven't been that 

Department officials reject the idea of an attempted diversion, arguing 
that each issue has merit and conforms to Ashcroft's view that strong law 
enforcement tactics should be brought to bear against many forms of crimes.

"When you're strong on law enforcement, that makes your job easier all the 
way around. It shows that you're serious," department spokeswoman Barbara 
Comstock said. "You can't just say, 'We're only going to worry about 

Greenberger said, however, "You can look at it one way and say it is not 
really things that are threatening to the United States."

The department also stands by its record on terrorism, pointing to arrests 
that disrupted alleged al-Qaida cells in upstate New York and Oregon; the 
arrest of "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla; dozens of convictions on 
document fraud and terror financing charges; and the indictment of former 
University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and seven others on 
charges of financing and overseeing the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.

Al-Arian had been under investigation for several years. Last month's 
indictment came after the Justice Department won an important appeals court 
ruling that for the first time made clear that prosecutors and law 
enforcement agents could use information gathered under secret foreign 
intelligence warrants, such as intercepted phone calls, in bringing 
criminal cases.

In the drug paraphernalia case, officials say Ashcroft was swayed by a 
strong presentation from the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, Mary Beth 
Buchanan, about the depth of the problem and its relationship in attracting 
youngsters to illegal substances. Ashcroft rewarded her by letting her run 
the probe, then held a news conference with her to announce her results.

The speech about sex trafficking gave Ashcroft, a decided social 
conservative, an opportunity to weigh in on a moral issue and describe a 
range of agency efforts that often go unnoticed by the public.

"Sex trafficking is more than just a serious violation of the law," he 
said. "It is an affront to human dignity. It is an assault on human values."

The Qwest indictments stemmed from the administration's promise to punish 
corporate miscreants. The Justice Department's Corporate Fraud Task Force, 
headed by Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, has brought criminal 
charges against more than 160 people.

If not for the threat from al-Qaida, these corporate prosecutions would 
likely command much more attention, especially given repeated claims by 
Democrats that Republican pro-business policies are partly to blame for the 

Ashcroft also continues to place a premium on prosecuting drug crimes and 
preventing criminals from obtaining firearms, rather than advocating gun 
control for other citizens.

Spokeswoman Comstock compared the attorney general's overall philosophy to 
that of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who believed that 
prosecuting minor crimes would help stop bigger ones.

"You set a tone that you're going to defend the law," she said.
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