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Inside Politics

Ashcroft: 'Activist' judges can put nation's security at risk

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

Attorney General John Ashcroft
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In his first public appearance since submitting his resignation, Attorney General John Ashcroft sharply criticized federal judges Friday for "second guessing" the Bush administration's decisions on handling prisoners captured in the war against terrorism.

Without referring to specific adverse rulings on the treatment of detainees or enemy combatants, Ashcroft blasted "activist" judges for encroaching on the powers that he insists belong solely to the president in wartime.

"The danger I see here is that intrusive judicial oversight and second-guessing of presidential determinations in these critical areas can put at risk the very security of our nation in a time of war," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft appeared to be responding in particular to a court ruling Monday in which a judge in Washington ordered military tribunal proceedings halted for Osama bin Laden's alleged driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan of Yemen.

Judge James Robertson ruled that Hamdan was entitled to a hearing on his claim of prisoner-of-war status. The ruling throws into question the government's plans for military trials for detainees captured on the battlefield, who have not been given prisoner-of-war status by the U.S. government.

The Ashcroft Justice Department immediately announced it would appeal that ruling, saying al Qaeda is not a state and has not signed the Geneva Conventions.

As Ashcroft arrived Friday, he received a long and roaring standing ovation from a hotel ballroom filled largely with leading conservative lawyers. In his speech to the Federalist Society's national convention, Ashcroft made no direct mention of his decision to step down as the nation's top law enforcement official.

Bush revealed Ashcroft's resignation Tuesday, and the next day named White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to succeed him.

In his only reference to the election Ashcroft said, "The people spoke, and they decisively reaffirmed the president's policies and the direction of the country under his leadership."

In reviewing efforts to combat terrorism, Ashcroft said, "I have been proud to serve in these great endeavors over the past four years." He declined to take questions after his speech.

Ashcroft cited as accomplishments the absence of a terrorist attacks since September 11, a continuing decline in violent crime and an increase in gun crime prosecutions.

But he spent most of his 30-minute speech defending the administration policies against federal judges critical of the government's terrorism policies.

"Ideologically driven courts have disregarded and dismissed the president's evaluations of foreign policy concerns, in favor of theories generated by academic elites, foreign bodies and judicial imagination," Ashcroft said.

"We are now confronted by a profoundly disturbing trend in our national political life: the growing tendency of the judicial branch to inject itself into areas of executive action originally assigned to the discretion of the president," Ashcroft said. "These encroachments include some of the most fundamental aspects of the president's conduct of the war on terrorism."

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