WASHINGTON – Colleagues praised outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) on Monday, crediting him with leading a Justice Department that helped prevent a terrorist attack on U.S. soil for more than three years despite intense criticism from political opponents and civil liberties groups.
"I think we would all agree he was the right man to lead the department in one of the most critical times in our history," said Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum (search), the agency's No. 3 official.
McCallum was among several hundred people who gathered at the department's Great Hall to bid farewell to Ashcroft, who is leaving President Bush's Cabinet as soon as his successor, Alberto Gonzales (search), is confirmed by the Senate. Ashcroft, a 62-year-old former Missouri governor and senator, has not revealed his post-government plans but will remain in the Washington area.
Ashcroft has been a lightning rod for Bush administration critics who argued that civil liberties (search) and privacy rights have been threatened by numerous actions taken in the war on terror. Ashcroft also has advocated staunchly conservative positions on such issues as gun rights, abortion and gay marriage, infuriating those on the other side.
Sen. John Kerry (search), D-Mass., said when Ashcroft's resignation was announced that he was "one of the most divisive faces in this administration."
Yet speaker after speaker Monday described Ashcroft as courageous, principled and modest, and willing to take tough stands on important issues despite the criticism. FBI Director Robert Mueller (search), who with Ashcroft briefed the president nearly every morning on terror threats, called the attorney general "a forceful advocate for freedom."
Others recalled things about Ashcroft that run counter to his stern public image, such as his enjoyment of basketball and skiing, his love of the St. Louis Cardinals (search) and his love of poetry and puns. They gave Ashcroft several gifts, including the White House chair that he occupied for four years in Cabinet meetings.
The Justice Department also released a 163-page booklet on its record during Ashcroft's tenure, titled "Preserving Life and Liberty," that recounted prosecutions in the war on terror, the reduction in crime rates and other details ranging from corporate crime to drug trafficking.
In his remarks, Ashcroft praised the Justice Department for responding forcefully to terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and making gains on numerous legal fronts.
"There seems to a record of achievement that you have generated that far exceeds what we would have anticipated without 9/11, in spite of this demand that we invest so many resources in the fight against terror," Ashcroft said. "There is no limit to what can be achieved when we work together in harmony and unity."