WASHINGTON – Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) is leaving but the top issues for the Justice Department are the same heading into President Bush's second term: persuading Congress to renew key parts of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act (search) and continuing fundamental reforms at the FBI.
Nominated to replace Ashcroft is Alberto Gonzales (search), the White House general counsel who would become the first Hispanic to lead Justice. If confirmed as expected by the Senate, Gonzales will inherit a job that begins each day with a detailed briefing of the terrorist threats facing the United States.
Prosecutors and FBI agents say nothing is more central to confronting that threat than the Patriot Act, passed overwhelmingly by Congress shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It gave the government expanded powers of surveillance and prosecution against would-be terrorists, their helpers and their financiers.
More than a dozen provisions of the law are set to expire by late October 2005 unless renewed by Congress. These include authority for judges to issue search warrants that apply nationwide, authority for FBI and criminal investigators to share information about terrorism cases and the FBI's power to obtain records in terrorism-related cases from businesses and other entities, including libraries.
During his re-election campaign, Bush repeatedly called the Patriot Act "a powerful tool in the war on terror" and urged lawmakers not to weaken or kill it. "Congress needs to make sure law enforcement has the tools necessary to defend the country," he said in August.
But the law has opponents among both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, as well as civil liberties groups, which see its expanded surveillance powers as too intrusive. They also say the law was rushed through Congress without a thorough review.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said those concerns won't disappear just because Bush won a second term.
"This election can't be spun in terms of a mandate to extend the Patriot Act," Romero said. "I think we will have a serious debate. Congress is finally going to address what those powers are and how they should be used."
One bipartisan bill, dubbed the Security and Freedom Assured Act, would tighten standards for issuance of so-called "sneak and peek" warrants - warrants issued without immediate notification of the target - require that "roving" wiretaps identify the person or place under surveillance and exempt libraries from parts of the law that allow FBI expanded access to records.
"This legislation intends to ensure the liberties of law-abiding individuals are protected in our nation's fight against terrorism, without in any way impeding that fight," said a prime sponsor, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.
The Bush administration, however, has threatened to veto that bill if it passes.
Another major challenge is continuing FBI reforms aimed at vastly improving the agency's ability to gather and analyze intelligence to avoid a repeat of the missed signals before the Sept. 11 attacks. FBI Director Robert Mueller has won widespread praise for his efforts, but it's uncertain if the changes will be lasting.
The independent Sept. 11 commission put its concerns this way: "In the past the bureau has announced its willingness to reform and restructure itself to address transnational security threats, but has fallen short."
Bush is likely to ask Congress for substantial budget increases next year for the FBI, particularly for such things as additional foreign language translators. If Congress fails this month to approve a broader intelligence reform bill, the president is expected to push lawmakers to create an intelligence "service within a service" to beef up those capabilities.
During his campaign, Bush promised that the Justice Department would fight in court to defend the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which has been ruled unconstitutional by two federal judges. Bush also said administration lawyers would work to protect the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which same-sex couples have challenged in court.
A second Bush term also will provide the answer to an important legal question: Can suspected terrorists be tried in civilian federal courts without jeopardizing national security or military missions?
Zacarias Moussaoui (search), the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, could stand trial this spring.
A key part of the trial will be so-called "substitutions" that will give Moussaoui the opportunity to place into evidence statements made by al-Qaida detainees about his knowledge of the plot. The government has refused to produce the witnesses themselves, arguing their testimony would disrupt important interrogations and set an impossible national security precedent on use of classified material.
How this trial plays out could determine whether the Bush administration proceeds with civilian trials for foreign "enemy combatants" or seeks to have them tried in military courts.