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The reason John Ashcroft had to go has been made clear over and over during his fractious reign as the country's attorney general, but never one to leave well enough alone, he made it clear again in the letter of resignation he issued Tuesday. This is a man without judgment.

Demonstrating the kind of overkill that is emblematic of his Justice Department, Ashcroft made this startling claim in his letter: "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved."

In the world according to Ashcroft, Americans can unbolt their doors without fear of intrusion, leave their key in the ignition because no one will steal the car and send their children out to play without fear of danger. What is more, all that talk about dirty bombs, suitcase nukes and mass casualties is null and void, because terrorism has been defanged, as well. America has been made safe because John Ashcroft was on the job.

Unfortunately for the country, that's not true. What is true, though -- also unfortunately for the country -- is that Ashcroft's excesses weren't confined to his rhetoric. Under his influence, civil liberties were weakened, critics were labeled as unpatriotic and people held as enemy combatants could not challenge their detention.

Even that doesn't begin to tell the tale on the most divisive attorney general in memory. Anyone in that job, faced with the sweeping disaster of Sept. 11, would have acted to protect the country and might have risked going too far. But Ashcroft had already shown himself to be a man without brakes, and continued that pattern after 9/1 1 in ways unrelated to terrorism.

He subpoenaed the records of abortion clinics, only to have his hand slapped by the courts. He substituted his judgment for federal prosecutors', demanding that they seek the death penalty more often. Early in his term, he reversed the doctrine of his predecessor, so that instead of complying with freedom of information requests whenever possible, staff was directed to resist them whenever they could.

Previously public information about such issues as chemical contamination was put off limits under the guise of anti-terror efforts. Under his leadership, the Justice Department produced a legal opinion stating that a wartime president was not bound by treaties or laws against torture.

Ashcroft was President Bush's gift to the radical right and the bane to the rest of the nation. He could have made a fine ayatollah, but in virtually every way, he was unsuited to the job of attorney general in a country far more diverse than his fundamentalist views allow.

This former senator was more interested in the legislative job of changing the laws than in ensuring that all Americans, even those whose ideas he did not share, were granted the protection of existing law. He was an evangelist at work as well as at prayer.

On Wednesday, Bush named his White House counsel to succeed Ashcroft. Alberto Gonzales, a longtime aide dating back to Bush's years as governor of Texas, would be the nation's first Hispanic attorney general if confirmed. Before that occurs, though, the Senate needs to ask some pointed questions about his defense of denying certain terrorism suspects access to lawyers or courts and about his role in the memo that claimed laws against torture did not apply to Bush.

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