Never Again: The Moral Imperative for Toughness

John Ashcroft
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Posted: Oct 02, 2006 5:03 AM
Never Again: The Moral Imperative for Toughness

Townhall.com Exclusive: a chapter from Never Again, the newly released book by former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The United States will suffer more terrorist attacks during this war with al Qaeda. They are fanatical, relentless, and patient. Their leadership is scattered, killed, or captured; their safe haven in Afghanistan is destroyed; their command and control structure has disintegrated. We are now at war with a diffuse, loosely organized network, united and motivated by a hatred for our nation and our core values. They are fed spiritually by bin Laden, and thrive in our society on the basic liberties they loath. The advance of civilization has dispersed technology, information, and destructive capacity so thoroughly that their network easily exploits these advances for their cause. This network will hit us again when they can.

I fear most the al Qaeda network’s access to weapons of mass destruction, because if they have them, they will use them. But we must concede that if al Qaeda shifted its focus in the United States from spectacular attacks against national symbols to “soft targets” such as schools, subways, and shopping centers, they would be more difficult to stop. Their affiliated networks have launched successful attacks on “soft targets” in other countries such as Spain, Great Britain, and Russia since 9/11. They have planned such attacks in the United States, but so far, they have failed. We can expect them to try again.

One simple but difficult principle provides the opportunity for the United States to achieve “never again.” That is: The will to win. The will to do whatever is necessary within the Constitution to protect America separates us from more death and destruction within our shores. It is the will to sacrifice, to persevere in the face of adversity and criticism just as generations of Americans did before us. It is no guarantee, but if we falter, grow complacent, or fail to do what we can, we give the terrorist network opportunities that, with time and patience, they will exploit to kill more innocent Americans.

A moral imperative for toughness exists if we are asking America’s young people to go out and stand in harm’s way, to risk getting shot, or to lay their lives on the line. Then we are not eligible to be “nice guys” who will take a soft and easy approach to the enemy when we realize what is needed to preserve American lives. When we ask for the lifeblood of the next generation of Americans in Afghanistan, Iraq, or on other fields of battle, the moral imperative demands we defend our freedoms with an unyielding mental toughness. If we lose our resolve, our will to win, by mistaking the tranquility of our daily lives for peace with terrorism, or caving in to propaganda campaigns built on a false sense of security, we will fail our moral obligation to young Americans who risk all to protect us.

These days my son Andy spends much of his time traveling in a rubber raft launched from a U.S. Navy destroyer. He crosses the divide between the huge ship and the suspected gun-running or contraband-carrying vessel and climbs aboard not knowing what threat to his life he is about to encounter in the theater of war. He does this not simply for the thrill of the experience but so we can live in safety and freedom thousands of miles away.

What sort of father would I be if I am unwilling to surveil suspected terrorists or ask probing questions of suspected terrorist detainees that might save the life of my son or thousands of other young men and women defending our liberty? Why should we send our young people into danger around the world in our fight against terrorism if we are going to coddle and succor terrorists in our own country? It would be a travesty if, because of our lack of moral resolve and the will to win, we turn our own country into a haven for terrorists that they no longer have in other lands.

The moral imperative demand toughness not simply on the next generation’s part but on ours.

Another aspect of the moral imperative for toughness is the recognition that America at its best represents the values of freedom and goodness, and the terrorists represent imposition and evil. Osama bin Laden and his ilk intend to dictate the conditions of a person’s existence; Americans believe that liberty and freedom are God-given rights. If we are truly endowed with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by our Creator, how dare we acquiesce in the face of terrorists, implying that we don’t care enough about those freedoms to defend them?

The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi used to say that the will to win is not the most important thing; the will to prepare to win is the most important. Anyone who gets into a fight wants to win, but if he hasn’t prepared ahead of time, he will be at a distinct disadvantage. Similarly, in our fight against terrorism, we must prepare to win. We must have the discipline to prepare for the next attack, and take the necessary steps to prevent it.

While sensational news stories about terrorism receive a lot of attention, Americans should understand that the hunt for terrorists in the United States is a “game of inches.” Every incremental step matters; each tiny bit of information can make a difference; seemingly insignificant clues may provide the crucial piece that helps solve the puzzle.

We should debate the government’s powers to protect the American people, for their exercise will shape our destiny. We should understand that the debate and our decisions are choices with consequences of life or death for innocent Americans. Which authority under the Constitution, one that is necessary to hunt terrorists inch by inch hiding in our country, will we surrender to suit our sensibilities? If you’ve heard the taped cries of the passengers about to die on United Flight 93 as I have, you believe minor steps such as helping local police to detain immigration violators can have profound consequences in the lives of individuals and in the nation.

I still see the doomed leaping form the World Trade Center, and smell the stench of rubble. I remember the cost of weakness; misguided decisions have consequences. In this war, fought within our shores, a moral imperative for toughness exists. What will separate us from the mistakes of the past is the will to win; the will to do whatever is necessary under the Constitution to win this war will allow Americans to maintain an attitude of “never again.”

Following my surgery in the spring of 2004, I tried to easy my work pace, but the constant swirl of events at the Justice Department, the never-ending flow of new challenges, and my sense of obligations kept me from slowing down. More and more, however, as we headed toward the presidential election of 2004, I felt that I should offer my resignation to President Bush. Neither he nor anyone in the administration ever gave me any indication that my resignation was expected. Every workday I met with the president, and at any point had he wanted me gone, it would have been a simple matter to drop a hint.

Certainly, I had no intention of resigning before the election, perhaps signaling a nonexistent rift, or creating a media frenzy as to who President Bush would nominate to replace me. When the time was right for me to leave, I knew I would know it.

That time came, and I knew it—on the day of the 2004 election. In resigning as attorney general, I sent President Bush a handwritten letter. I expressed my personal thanks for the privilege of serving our country:

November 2, 2004

Dear Mr. President:

Nothing in my life compares to the high honor of serving America as Attorney General in your administration.

The cause of justice is indeed a serious calling. Americans have been spared the violence and savagery of terrorist attack on our soil since September, 11, 2001.

During the last four years our violent crime rate has plunged to a thirty-year low. Under your “Project Safe Neighborhoods” the number of gun crimes has fallen to its lowest level in modern history. Drug use among America’s young people has fallen and continues to fall significantly.

Corporate integrity has been restored with the work of your Corporate Fraud Task Force. As a result United States markets have reinforced their position as the trusted allocaters of the world’s capital resources.

Thank you for your leadership which has made these and many other Justice-related achievements possible.

The demands of justice are both rewarding and depleting. I take great personal satisfaction in the record which has been developed. The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved. The rule of law has been strengthened and upheld in the courts. Yet, I believe that the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspirations. I believe that my energies and talents should be directed toward other challenging horizons.

Therefore, I humbly state my desire to resign from the office of United States Attorney General.

It would be my pleasure to structure the announcement of this resignation and the ensuing transition in the conjunction with you so that your administration and the cause of justice are served optimally.

I have handwritten this letter so its confidentiality can be maintained until the appropriate arrangements mentioned above can be made.

I am grateful to you for the profound honor of serving clear, principled leadership.

May God continue to bless, guide, and direct you and your family as you lead America forward in freedom.

Most sincerely,

John Ashcroft.

We’d had a record-setting run at the Justice Department during the four years I had served as attorney general. As I thought back through some of our accomplishments, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. Most of all, I was grateful to God that during our tenure, no further terrorist attacks had succeeded after 9/11.

America’s defense—the defense of life and liberty—requires a new culture of prevention, nurtured by cooperation, built on coordination, and rooted in our constitutional liberties. We had carefully dismantled many of the excessive constraints imposed in the late 1970s that erected barriers to cooperation among government agencies, segregated law enforcement and intelligence gathering, and prohibited information sharing. That process needs to continue, including congressional oversight, certainly, but continue, nonetheless. Our survival and success in this long war on terror demands that we continuously adapt and improve our capabilities to protect Americans from fanatical, ruthless enemies. We must build a culture of prevention and ensure the resources of our government can be dedicated to defending Americans.

I’m often asked, “How will we know when the war on terror is over?” Perhaps that is a cover for the more troubling question: “Will it be over?”

One of Missouri’s most famous native sons, Yogi Berra, is renowned for garbled anomalies such as, “That place is so crowded nobody ever goes there anymore” and “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

Terror as a technique of war presents confounding questions: when will it be over and how will we know when it is over?

We must never allow the idea that it may be difficult to know someday whether the war is over to keep us from understanding that it can be crystal clear that the war is going on now. This conclusion is easy, considering continuing plots in Canada and the United States as well as attacks around the world. It is also painfully apparent that the war is not over when terrorist leaders offer aggressively threatening statements in the media or on the Internet.

To assume that, because we may have difficult knowing someday that the war is over makes it impossible to know now that the war is still on, is nothing short of stupidity.

One more observation regarding the termination of the war on terror: this has been cited as a problem relating to the disposition of battlefield detainees. And it is more difficult knowing how or when to release detainees if there is no controlling, receiving authority to restrain these captured terrorists from restarting the battle. Nevertheless, in answering the question of which part should bear the risks of indeterminate detention pending the definitive cessation of the war, the answer is clear. The attacked, innocent culture should not bear the risk of additional injury. The risk should be borne by the terrorist aggressor who assaulted the innocent.

Much discussion has centered on the absence in the enemy of a clear, controlling governing authority capable of ending the fight with the United States. We have witnessed terror morph and evolve in the past five years. It ahs included airplanes, subways, schools, theaters, churches, and police stations—in short, civilian targets. It is the ultimate goal of terrorists to displace by force and fear the freedom and the will of the people. The goal of terror is not traditional territorial enlargement; rather the war target of the terrorist is the dismemberment of the will of the community it terrorizes.

One thing is certain, the risk of concluding that the war is over if and when it is not over is a very substantial risk indeed. Time and time again the patience of terror has been misinterpreted as the end of terror. When such misinterpretation has occurred, this mistake has invited disaster on a grand scale and an invigorated reemergence of terror.

When average Americans no longer believe there is a risk of terrorist activity, it becomes easier for terrorists to operate and succeed. I am thoroughly convinced that alerting and sensitizing the public to the risks of terrorism in our early effort to forestall further attacks decreased the risks of those attacks. When the public is alert, attacks are disrupted. If we cannot conclude this after the thwarting of Richard Reid’s shoe bomb effort on the American Airlines flight we are without vision or hope.

The anomaly is that sensitizing the public probably stops the attack and then the absence of attacks undermines the idea that threat of attack existed. Ironically, the success of the elevated public alert thus undermines its credibility over time. Warning and alertness provides safety and defense, which lead to the misperception that there never was a real threat in the first place.

Nowadays, technology endows state, nonstate, and individual players with extensive destructive capabilities that were previously available only to substantial nation-state-scaled war participants. When the founders of our country and the writers of the Constitution put all the safeguards in place, at the time of the American Revolution, a single individual might have been able to carry explosives that could damage a room or a small structure. Today, a single terrorist could do more damage than a frigate sailing through Boston Harbor might have threatened during the Revolution. Today, one man might transport catastrophic explosive capacity or evil biology or radiology and, in worse cases, combine them to threaten metropolitan areas and hundreds of thousands of lives.

It is possible that some of the concerns that led us to beware of nation-states—formerly the exclusive agents of widespread calamity—might now be necessary to safeguard against even greater modern threats, deployable by individuals and small groups? The enormity of the potential destruction and the speed at which it can be accomplished have drastically changed our world. That destructive capacity was unthinkable when the Constitution was carefully crafted.

The Constitution gives general power for defense to the chief executive of our nation. This makes good sense when one witnesses how long it takes a congressional committee to decide whether or not to send a matter to a vote. No wonder the writers of our Constitution said that defending our nation should be an “executive power”; there is a need for adroit decisions and to have the agility to change course for purposes of national defense based on the activities that are threatening.

At my retirement, I sensed and still feel today that the United States is winning the war on terrorism. First the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have set new standards for cooperation and coordination. The FBI’s domestic intelligence operations were substantially strengthened by the CIA’s information sharing, intelligence analysis, and operational coordination.

Second, in the new FBI as restructured under Director Bob Mueller, America’s domestic counterterrorism force integrates intelligence and law enforcement capabilities to protect American lives.

A good example of how the FBI now functions to dismantle terrorism would be their clandestine operation against two Yemeni citizens, Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad and Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed. Both men were charged with conspiring to provide material support to al Qaeda and Hamas terrorists through al-Moayad’s worldwide fund-raising operations. In the FBI undercover operation, al-Moayad boasted that he had personally handed Osama bin Laden $20million from his terrorist fund-raising network.

In November 2001, the FBI’s International Terrorism squad began working with a confidential informant who had known al-Moayad for more than six years. During several meetings with an FBI informant, al-Moayad boasted “jihad” was his field, and trumpeted his involvement in providing money, recruits, and supplies to al-Qaeda, Hamas, and other terrorist groups, and said he received money for jihad from collections at the al-Farouq mosque in Brooklyn. Al-Moayad also claimed to be Osama bin Laden’s spiritual advisor.

On January 7, 2003, al-Moayad and Zayed flew from Yemen to Frankfurt, Germany, to meet with the FBI informant. Al-Moayad allegedly went to the meetings intending to obtain $2 million from a terrorist sympathizer who wanted to fund al Qaeda and Hamas. At these meetings with FBI informants in Frankfurt, al-Moayad confirmed that the $2 million contribution would be used to support the mujahideen fighters of al Qaeda and Hamas. Zayed even “swore to Allah” that he would get the money to al Qaeda and Hamas if anything happened to al-Moayad. Al-Moayad and Zayed were subsequently arrested and charged. In March 2005 a federal jury convicted al-Moayad. He was sentenced to seventy-five years in prison. Zayed was sentenced to forty-five years in prison.

This one FBI counterterrorism operation blended human intelligence sources, advanced electronic surveillance, deep undercover operations, terrorist financing savvy, and criminal subpoenas and search warrants, along with seamless law enforcement and intelligence cooperation. The breadth and talent of the team fielded in this case literally spanned the globe—from the New York City police to the prosecutors in Frankfurt, Germany.

This is a good example of the new FBI—focused on preventing terrorism, integrating intelligence and law enforcement, and delivering results. During the time I served as attorney general, I observed Director Mueller and FBI agents around the world as they transformed their intelligence and counterterrorism operations to achieve these kinds of prevention missions. Their efforts to make Americans safer, often in many ways the public does not see and cannot be disclosed.

Third, the Justice Department continues prosecuting the war on terror by integrating our law enforcement and intelligence capabilities as authorized under the Patriot Act. Between late 2001 and May 2004, we had a 100 percent increase in FISA orders, doubling in less than three years. We increased by 63 percent our intelligence sources—people who were informing our intelligence agents about potential terrorist activities.

During our time in the Justice Department, hundreds of suspected terrorists were identified and tracked throughout the United States. We disrupted numerous potential terrorist threats including terrorist cells in Buffalo, Detroit, Seattle, and Portland. More than 375 individuals were charged in terrorism-related investigations; 195 people were convicted or pleaded guilty on terrorism-related charges, including shoe bomber Richard Reid, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2003. Another 113 individuals in twenty-five separate judicial districts were charged with material support to terrorism, and 57 were convicted or pleaded guilty; “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh also pleaded guilty to one count of providing services to the Taliban and a charge that he carried weapons while fighting on the Taliban’s front lines in Afghanistan against the United States—backed Northern Alliance. Lindh was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

More than 150 terrorist threats and cells were also disrupted. Members of a Portland cell, including Patrice Lumumba Ford and Jeffrey Battle, pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Ford and Battle were sentenced to eighteen years in prison.

The Lackawanna Six, a terrorist cell operating near Buffalo, New York, also pleaded guilty to charges of providing material support to al Qaeda. They were sentenced to terms ranging from seven to ten years in prison.

Hamant Lakhani, the British national convicted of attempting to sell shoulder-fired missiles to what he thought was a terrorist group, was sentenced to forty-seven years in prison. Numerous other convictions have been obtained by the Justice Department in cases against terrorism. As I looked back over my time as attorney general it was clear that we had helped prevent terrorists from harming Americans.

During my tenure we also charged and deported nearly five hundred immigration violators linked to the 9/11 investigation. We made major strides toward dismantling the terrorist financial network and we disrupted terrorist movements around the world. We launched seventy investigations into terrorist financing, designated forty entities as terrorist organizations, and froze $136 million from terrorist organizations around the globe. Thousands of terrorists and criminals were stopped through the National Security Entry-Exit Registrations System (NSEERS) including some suspected terrorists with ties to al Qaeda.

We added more than one thousand FBI agents to counterterrorism and counterintelligence; we also added 250 new assistant U.S. Attorneys. Fifty-six Joint Terrorism Task Forces were created to facilitate the fight against terror from the Capitol to the states and localities.

Throughout this process, the Department of Justice acted thoughtfully, carefully, and within the framework of American freedom, the Constitution of the United States. Time and again, the actions in the war on terrorism were subjected to thorough judicial review, and time and again, our department consistently defended the legal challenges. Just as the president’s powers to protect the American people are rooted in the Constitution, our actions against terrorist threats were rooted in the Constitution, while adapting to the changing methods of our terrorist enemies.

Ironically, the attack of 9/11 led to the creation of a climate in America that actually helped reduce crime and drug usage. The attacks on our nation galvanized the morale, the will and the determination of law enforcement, and unified Americans within the law enforcement community like nothing in recent memory. Who wore ball caps bearing the initials NYPD or NYFD before 9/11? After 9/11, the positive identification of the public with law enforcement and responders skyrocketed. How sad that it took bin Laden to wake us up to appreciate the people who work so diligently at protecting us every day, but we should be grateful for the American people’s embrace of the law enforcement community in response to the most horrendous attack in our history.

The intense focus of law enforcement, the stronger coordination among local, state, and federal authorities, and the enhanced vigilance of the American people all worked against criminals and drug lords as well as terrorists. Violent crime dropped every year that I was attorney general to its lowest recorded level in American history in 2004. Rape and sexual assaults, aggravated assaults, and violent crime overall were cut by a quarter. The murder rate dropped to record levels with federal gun crime prosecutions climbing to 76 percent to a record high, while gun crimes plummeted 24 percent to a record low. We did this, by the way, without any new gun-control laws.

If the crime rates in 2003 had remained at 1993 levels, 34.6 million more Americans would have been victimized by violent crimes. Additionally, 2.5 million more Americans would have been raped or sexually assaulted, and 6 million more gun crimes would have occurred. These numbers may not mean much to you merely reading them, but consider that they may represent your family, friends, or neighbors who did not suffer the pain or lass of a rape or murder.

With a restructured and refocused drug strategy, we experienced a 108 percent increase in drug seizures, dismantled a quarter of the major drug organizations, and arrested a quarter of the drug kingpins. Teenage drug use dropped for the first time in a decade—by 17 percent. Again, you may not appreciate that drop, unless you have a teenage son, daughter or grandchild.

We recovered 150 missing children through the use of Amber Alerts, and we expanded the Amber Alert capability form four states to forty-nine states. Moreover, we were the first Justice Department in many years to come away with clean financial audit.

Most of all, we were able to enlist the support of the American people in protecting our country from terrorism. As I write these words, America has not suffered another major terrorist attack. I pray that record continues to grow daily. But our safety has been the result of an alert, vigilant, and supportive public as well as thousands of unsung, dedicated public servants, many of whom I was privileged to work with on a daily basis.

At the same time, we must never forget that the war against terror can only be won one day at a time. When I wrote in my resignation letter to President Bush that “the objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved,” the news media objected vociferously. “How can you say it is achieved? The war is not over.”

Yes, we did; we won the war yesterday, and the day before, but the president well knew and so did I that victory is achieved one day at a time. We must remain constantly vigilant. We dare not underestimate our enemy. Al Qaeda is committed to the destruction of America, and give them credit for being, and they are definitely much more patient than the pace of our fast-food society conditions us to be. Their commitment does not depend on bin Laden or any other single leader. In June 2006, American forces in Iraq killed insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. A truly evil man is dead, but other will rise to take his place. Defeating them will take prayerful creativity, imagination, energy, persistence, and determination.

It may indeed be true that the terrorists thought that America was weak, that we would implode in the face of their attacks. After all, we had not responded effectively to their strikes in Nairobi, Khobar Towers, the USS Cole.

They may have dreamed they would sink the American economy by their strikes, and while we must admit the economic impact of 9/11 was enormous, the resilience of Americans and the ability of Americans to pull the economy back together after the attack was nothing short of inspiring.

America refused to be defeated. The United States responded with greater unity resolve, and intensity than the terrorists expected. In the hearts of each one of us rang the unspoken words, “Never again.”

Thankfully, the one question I’ll never have to answer is, “why did you allow us to be attacked again?” But my great satisfaction is, we were able to disrupt numerous terrorist attacks during my stay in office, and of all the accomplishments about which I am most pleased, I am happiest about what did not happen.

Certainly, people may have tried to pull things off that didn’t work or of which we were unaware. But whenever we found any potential terrorists, we acted swiftly and effectively to get them off the street or out of the country.

An old saying purports, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and that is so true. But we needed a pound of prevention to deal with the terrorists America faced, and to prevent a war from being fought against them on our soil, in our backyards…and we still do.

On the home front, our constant efforts in defense of liberty took heat at every step, but we considered the fight worth making. And that unseen war must continue as well.

My prayer is not merely that God will bless America—He has done so abundantly—but that we would be granted wisdom in protecting this grand experiment that many of us believe was His idea in the first place.

One senior administration official described my role in President George W. Bush’s administration as one of “spear-catcher.” Every spear caught is an injury avoided; the ones you don’t catch—the ones that catch you—are the ones that really hurt.

After I left my position in the cabinet, I met many people who said, “My, you certainly had to work through some difficult times,” and perhaps we did. But I’m grateful that God allowed me to be there during those times, as challenging as they were.

At my Justice Department retirement ceremony n January 25, 2005, Daniel Bryant, director of the Office of Legal Policy, equipped that the caricatures of me in the press “served as a full-employment program for cartoonists and pundits.” He then cited David Letterman’s jab whenever he heard that I was retiring: “They say Attorney General John Ashcroft may be stepping down. Apparently he wants to spend more time spying on his family.”

Actually, Letterman was probably more right than he knew. I was indeed looking forward to seeing my family members for more frequently.

These days, I enjoy working with my own company, the Ashcroft Group, which counsels corporations on enhancing corporate integrity, developing homeland security technologies, navigating strategic crises, and managing risks. I also enjoy keeping relatively normal hours, and eating dinner with Janet most evenings.

I relish the outdoors and the farm Janet and I have away from Washington, where there is nothing but a couple of toolsheds. I enjoy fighting back the brush, picking blackberries, and harvesting tomatoes in the garden.

Every once in a while, I’ll be working up a good sweat when I notice a jumbo jet high above in the crystal sky, on its way toward Washington, D.C. Occasionally, a thought may dart through my consciousness that, similar to what happened on 9/11, there could be some evil-intentioned person at the controls.

Then I’ll stop and mop my brow, watch the airliner continue on its way, and gratefully pray, “Never again."

The preceeding is a chapter from Never Again, the newly released book by former Attorney General John Ashcroft.