Last week, The Heritage Foundation’s second annual “Protect America Month” came to a close. The program was designed to express commitment to America’s national security, advocate for increased defense spending, point out the constitutional basis for government’s role in protecting America, and to examine the threats to the United States. John Ashcroft, former Attorney General of the United States, delivered the closing speech.
Attorney General Ashcroft began by asserting his belief that “the defense of America is tantamount to the defense of freedom. And freedom is worth defending.” He astutely reviewed his understanding of the definition of freedom, and how American exceptionalism plays a vital role in contributing and sustaining freedom around the globe.
He rejected the common argument that freedom and national security must be balanced. Rather, freedom is the highest value with no parallel. However, in order to maintain it, it must be secured. Therefore, the two are not counterweights to each other. Rather, national security protects America’s freedom, and ensures that freedom stays intact.
Ashcroft explained that the ability to engage in the pursuit of happiness increases freedom, while the provision of happiness by the government impairs freedom, and often comes at a high cost. In other words, when needs are converted into rights, freedom shrinks. Most importantly, the imposition of that which is not wanted constitutes the denial of freedom regardless of the virtue of that which is being imposed.
Freedom is under attack. Nine years after September 11, 2001, Americans have become complacent. Many have a false sense of security. But the former Attorney General encouraged the audience not to surrender to the terrorist threat, and always be mindful of those who sacrificed their lives for the cause of freedom.
Ashcroft believes that the number one responsibility of the federal government is to protect its citizens. The way he believes national security is enforced is through the rule of law, so that people are on notice of what they can and cannot do.
In analyzing habeas corpus doctrine, the use of military tribunals and indefinite detention, Ashcroft reviewed numerous Supreme Court cases including Hamdi, Quirin, and Eisentrager. He also discussed the DC Court of Appeals case, titled Maqaleh v Gates.
When asked about his positions on specific policy and legal matters, he emphasized the reasoning process that should support these decisions. They included the following:
- Be aware that policies send a message that can deter behavior or invite behavior;
- Determine if the conduct in question constitutes a war crime or merely violates a domestic criminal statute;
- Ensure that all three branches of government are acting within their appropriate constitutional limits;
- Know that the executive branch can make faster decisions to ensure the protection of America’s national security than can the legislative branch;
- Acknowledge the fact that military tribunals, while operating under different rules than federal courts, still result in outcomes that are fair and respect the true facts;
- In deciding whether a defendant should be tried in a military tribunal versus a federal court, determine your objective. If national security information in involved, minimize the release of this information to our enemies;
- If a person with US citizen status is fighting against the US with America’s enemies, perhaps he should be treated as an enemy;
- Laws should be clear and certain. If the geographical location of the occurrence doesn’t provide clear rules, then look to the circumstances surrounding the case;
- America should make sure that she runs prisons only in locations where she can maintain control of what occurs within them;
- Finally, Americans should distinguish between detention for the purpose of punishment and detention for the purpose of removing enemy combatants from the stream of battle.
The former Attorney General also noted that America’s reckless financial conduct will have grave national security implications for future generations who might be unable to finance their defense. Moreover, if America reveals a lack of self-sufficiency to the world by becoming a debtor to the world, it signals America’s weakness. Funding national security should be one of government’s main priorities.
America’s current Attorney General, Eric Holder, appears to have no clear rules guiding his decisions in reference to which defendants go to a military tribunal versus a federal court. His decisions appear to be arbitrary and capricious. Though he is the head of the Department of Justice, national security does not seem to be his paramount priority. He refuses to acknowledge the Islamist ideological threat, favors the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, opposes the Patriot Act (responsible for disrupting numerous terrorist plots in the US) and is critical of enhanced interrogation techniques. Instead, he has stated that engagement in “dialogue” with the Muslim community is a priority for his Department, as is the prosecution of so-called “hate crimes.” Though he is not an expert in Islamic theology, he nevertheless asserts with seeming authority the claim that that those who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam behave in a way that is “un-Islamic” and contrary to Islam’s actual teachings.
By contrast, John Ashcroft led America through its toughest times after the largest terrorist attack on US soil following September 11, 2001. He made fighting terrorism his number one priority. He reorganized DOJ to ensure that suspected terrorists were prosecuted when the evidence warranted it. Under his leadership, DOJ dismantled numerous terrorist cells throughout the US and over 150 plots throughout the world. Ashcroft’s role in the execution of the War on Terror was one of the most difficult of any cabinet member.
Ashcroft’s speech at the Heritage Foundation expressed a love of freedom, an appreciation of American exceptionalism, an understanding of the threats to liberty, respect for the law, Judeo-Christian values, and a deference to “we the people.” The Left, of course, has consistently expressed its venom toward John Ashcroft and the entire War on Terror. But Ashcroft’s speech reminded me of the time after September 11, 2001, when, however briefly, the country came together to face our common enemies. Our government united us in the cause for freedom and our shared American values. My, how things have changed.