John Ashcroft spoke about the threats facing the U.S.
Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called liberty the core defining value of America, and emphasized the necessity of securing it through whatever means necessary
when he spoke to a crowd of nearly 250 students Thursday in Lehigh’s Packard Auditorium.
“Liberty is the single most important value we share,” said Ashcroft, on campus to deliver the Harold Simmons Lecture sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation.
“It’s what defines America, what makes us different. The model for government around the world is that the will of the leaders is imposed upon the people. Our experience in America is a direct inversion of that principle.”
But, he quickly warned, “the world is a very, very dangerous place,” and the country’s leaders have the duty to devise methods for proactively ferreting out threats that now come from a host of enemies armed with both ideological fervor and the technological weapons to do great harm.
“We’ve done a lot to secure the United States of America, but technology has changed the calculus of what it takes to secure a nation,” said Ashcroft, who drew on the works of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough to draw a contrast with past and present-day perils.
“No longer do threats that affect the circumstances of liberty come at that sort of snail’s pace, or on the wings of the wind,” he said. “The amount of response time we now have is very, very, very compressed. Technology has had a profound effect. Today, either through evil chemistry or virulent biology, something the size of this podium can decimate a city.”
A call from Texas
Ashcroft is a former U.S. Senator from Missouri and U.S. Attorney General.
The former U.S. Senator from Missouri told students how he felt that his career in politics was over in November of 2000, when he lost his race for another Senate term to then-Gov. Mel Carnahan, who had died days earlier in a plane crash
“Thanks for not mentioning all the elections I lost,” he said to Chris Huether ‘09, president of the Lehigh chapter of the College Republicans, who introduced Ashcroft. “I’m the only person in the history of Missouri to lose to a deceased opponent. And if all of you don’t know anything about that, I’m not going to tell you.”
Resigned to a life free from the spotlight after nearly three decades in public service, Ashcroft said he was looking forward to a break from the turbulent, taxing world of politics.
“And then I get a call from Texas,” says Ashcroft, who acquiesced to George W. Bush’s request that he serve as U.S. Attorney General in the first term of the Bush administration.
The snake you don’t see
Nine months later, on Sept. 11th, Ashcroft faced his first major crisis and said that he quickly learned that the threat paradigm had shifted dramatically.
“It used to take a nation state to threaten a nation state,” he said. “It no longer takes that. Deliverability is such that now, even one individual can do that.”
His charge since that day, he said, was to heed Bush’s order to “never let this happen again.”
“One of the things we did first was to change the modality of backward-looking to forward-looking,” said Ashcroft, who immediately began working on the controversial Patriot Act legislation that was hastily approved by a 98-1 vote in the Senate.
“To shift from a prosecution to prevention-oriented approach, you need information,” he said. “As the saying in the woods goes, it’s the snake you don’t see that bites you.”
While understanding the value Americans place on privacy, Ashcroft characterized it as “an aspiration,” and drew on the laws of science to explain that two flows coming together result in turbulence.
“That’s the challenge for this generation, and the next,” he said. “Information is managed and used successfully in a lot of other areas, and I think we can work this out. Over and over again, people talk about the necessity to balance security and freedom, and that’s an improper construct. The purpose of security is to secure freedom. It’s not to balance freedom.”
"You don’t charge people for fighting in wars"
Displaying a self-deprecating sense of humor through his 45-minute talk, Ashcroft’s demeanor turned testy when confronted by a series of questioners afterward.
“I don’t want to try and validate all our conditions in that little speech you made,” he said to one audience member, who contrasted news reports of contradictory public and private statements Ashcroft made on harsh interrogation techniques. “But I’m not in the business of harmonizing news reports. My job is to give the best legal advice I could. This is not a well-honored code, by the way. Washington leaks like a bloody sieve.”
To another, who asked how the Bush administration can speak glowingly of liberty as a core American value, yet detain prisoners without a trial in Guantanamo Bay, Ashcroft launched into an extended justification of the administration’s humanitarian approach.
“With people apprehended on the battleground, there are only a couple of options,” he said. “In ancient history, this didn’t used to be a big deal. They just killed them. But once you decide you don’t want to do that, the humanitarian approach is either take them and hold them as prisoners, or release them so that they can go out and take another shot. You don’t charge people for fighting in wars. You keep them until the conflict is over.”
Other questions he fielded dealt with civil unions, preservation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Bush administration’s support of oppressive regimes in other parts of the world.
“If you’re asking me if the U.S. has had a perfect foreign policy, I can agree that it hasn’t,” he said. “But it has been characterized, by and large, by liberation, and not domination.
“Very frankly, we truly believe in freedom. It’s what makes this place special, and I’m very, very grateful that I was born into this country.”
In addition to the College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, several Lehigh-related groups and individuals sponsored Ashcroft’s talk, including The Lehigh Patriot
, the Visiting Lectures Committee, the Dean of Students Office, the political science department, the Tresolini Lecture Fund, the Student Senate and Herbert E. Ehlers ’62.
Photos by Theo Anderson