Urban League chief: Ashcroft record mixed

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent  |  Aug. 6, 2002 at 2:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- Hugh Price, president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League, vehemently opposed John Ashcroft's confirmation as attorney general.

But Price now gives Ashcroft mixed grades for the attorney general's first year and a half in office.

Price's comments came during a wide-ranging interview with United Press International Tuesday.

In January 2001, Price was not equivocal about his opposition to Ashcroft, who had just been nominated by President Bush as attorney general after losing his bid to remain a U.S. senator from Missouri.

"We believe Sen. Ashcroft's record indicates that he does not possess the even-handedness and judiciousness required to serve as the supreme lawyer of the land," Price said then.

"Given Mr. Ashcroft's rigid and doctrinaire opposition to voluntary busing for school desegregation, affirmative action, women's right to choose, gay rights and an array of other issues that are central to the civil rights of Americans," Price added, "we question whether he can exercise the duties of attorney general in a fair and judicious manner."

The Urban League was especially incensed at Ashcroft's temporarily successful effort to derail President Clinton's nomination of Ronnie White, a distinguished black jurist, to the all-white 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Price and others felt Ashcroft deliberately distorted White's record as a justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, trying to make him seem soft on crime.

Tuesday, Price's comments were a little more complimentary -- though not entirely.

Ashcroft's tenure at the Justice Department has been "more constructive than I think I would have expected," Price said.

He cites intervention into the violence in Cincinnati -- the Justice Department started a "patterns and practices" investigation against the police department and monitored a settlement after rioting in black neighborhoods. The neighborhoods were angry at police shootings of black suspects.

Price is less sanguine on the Ashcroft approach to civil rights and related matters. "I don't think they've been very proactive on those issues."

The Urban League chief said his organization spent a considerable amount of time trying to get Clinton and then-Attorney General Janet Reno to act against racial profiling by police.

The Clinton administration had begun to act, but "a lot of that energy has been dissipated" by the Bush administration.

Price also doesn't like the political slant of the federal judge nominees who have been recommended by the Ashcroft Justice Department to the Bush White House.

"A lot of the recommendations of judges have been very problematic," Price said. Bush has pledged to appoint conservatives to the federal bench.

There also have been a number of problems with civil liberties after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Price said. He cited Operation TIPS -- for Terrorist Information and Prevention System -- as a prime example.

TIPS was designed by the Bush White House to be administered by the Justice Department. The proposal calls for millions of American workers -- mail carriers, meter readers, truck drivers and the like -- to report "suspicious activity" along their ordinary routes.

The proposal has drawn fire from both Republican and Democratic leaders. It hit a major snag last month when the U.S. Postal Service said its carriers would not participate.

Getting millions of Americans to inform on each other was not the Bush administration's best idea, Price said: "That's the way it worked in Hungary and East Germany."

For its part, the administration continues to support the proposal, and says TIPS will keep no national data system, but will simply turn over leads to law enforcement.

Overall, the Ashcroft Justice Department gets "a mixed grade," Price said. "I'd say a 'C+' to a 'B' on a number of the police issues. A 'D' on judicial nominations."

Price does not claim to be an expert on terrorism, but he wondered why the administration's efforts seemed to bear such little fruit, in his opinion.

Only one suspect, French national Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged directly in the plotting that led to the Sept. 11 attacks. An American caught fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan, John Walker Lindh, has pleaded guilty to two charges to escape the death penalty. Another U.S. citizen, Jose Padilla, has been charged with conspiring with al Qaida to detonate a radioactive "dirty" bomb in the United States.

Hundreds of illegal aliens from the Middle East or southern Asia have been deported.

"I feel for everyone in this administration because I'm struck to this day how few have been charged directly" in the Sept. 11 attacks, Price said. " ... Maybe we're not as much in the dark as it appears."

Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller have said that the arrests of many suspects, even on charges unrelated to the Sept. 11 attacks, may have disrupted further terrorist activity in this country.

"There's no question there's been no second attack," Price said.

Price also rejected any suggestion that the national policy against racial profiling has led airport screeners to waste time searching obvious Americans, such as former Vice President Al Gore, instead of concentrating on those obviously from Islamic countries.

"Muslim extremists come in all complexions," Price said, and there are non-Muslim extremists who also wish us harm.

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