John Ashcroft's Exit Interview

On the eve of President Bush's inauguration, outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft spoke exclusively to Peter Jennings about his tenure at the helm of the U.S. Justice Department.

Ashcroft -- who has developed a colorful public service record over the last 30 years -- talked about his decision to resign, America's response to terrorism, the controversial Patriot Act, and his faith and legacy.

Following is an excerpt from the interview:

PETER JENNINGS: May I just first ask about your departure? This is a job that is draining, both physically and emotionally. Did that have an impact on your decision to leave?

JOHN ASHCROFT: I wrote a letter to the president, in which I said it was both an inspiring and challenging, and both a fulfilling and draining job. It's a job which requires significant attention, especially in the context of international terror, which we've been dealing with.

JENNINGS: You get up every day, and you look at the threat assessment every day, and you say to yourself, "They may beat me today?"

ASHCROFT: Well, I think you have to. If you don't think they might beat you today, then you're not going to be as careful in that day as you ought to be. And as the president has said, they only have to win once. We have to win all the time.

JENNINGS: Do you think you know whether or not al Qaeda is ensconced in the United States today?

ASHCROFT: We know that there are individuals who are sympathetic to the radical extremist values, if you want to call them values -- or plans of al Qaeda -- that are in the United States.

JENNINGS: Are you confident that as you leave this building, the country is safer, as you put it, because you have done something, or because the potential terrorists may have a different timeline?

ASHCROFT: Well, I think there are a combination of factors that make America safer right now. Not only have we sort of strengthened our capacity to defend, we know a lot more than we used to know. We've improved our intelligence capacity and that's very important. We have been more aggressive in prosecuting individuals who have violated the law. Now, on the other hand, I think it's clear that terrorist organizations are not static organizations.

JENNINGS: It is no secret that you're one of the most polarizing figures in all of government. And I wonder if, when you first became aware of that, did you decide you could fight that, or did you just have to live with it?

ASHCROFT: Well, I simply decided that my priority was to do everything within my power to protect the American people and not to worry so much about whether I would be popular in doing it at the time.

JENNINGS: As you look back on your time [in the Justice Department], do you think there are some things you might have done differently?

ASHCROFT: Yeah, there are some things. Anybody who looks back at four years in his life and doesn't think that there are ways to improve their performance, his vision is ... I hope my vision is ... For example, the Patriot Act has been very important to us. It has helped us defend the American people, and I don't believe it's been an infringement of their liberties. But I think if I had done a better job early on in explaining it, the sort of misrepresentations about the way it is said to have threatened the American people simply wouldn't have gotten the early traction. And that's been a kind of a bum rap that the Patriot Act has had to live with.

JENNINGS: Has it been unpleasant for you, at various times, to have people make fun of your faith? And the fact that you bring your faith very actively and very openly to the work place?

ASHCROFT: My religion is not that people would do things by imposition; it's that they would do things by choice, so it's against my religion to impose my religion. And it's been my job to protect the right of people to criticize me, whether it's (laughs) my religion or whether it's my politics.

JENNINGS: How do you feel about giving up public service?

ASHCROFT: Well, I really am grateful. I've spent about 30 years in jobs of public responsibility, and it's been a privilege. It's a privilege to serve any time. Frankly, I think it's a greater privilege to serve in tough times, when you have significant challenges that mean a lot to the safety and security of the people you serve. I think I'll miss it in a lot of respects.