The exiting law enforcement chief stands by his record.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The possibility that Al-Qaida or its sympathizers could gain access to a nuclear bomb is the greatest danger facing the United States in the war on terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday.
U.S. officials "from time to time" uncover evidence terrorists are trying to develop nuclear capability, Ashcroft said without providing any specifics. It is not clear whether they have made any progress, but the United States must take the threat seriously, he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"If you were to have nuclear proliferation find its way into the hands of terrorists, the entire world might be very seriously disrupted by a few individuals who sought to impose their will, their arcane philosophy, on the rest of mankind," he said.
Ashcroft, 62, is ending four years as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, much of the period devoted to a war on terrorism that began with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He will leave office when his successor, Alberto Gonzales, is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in, possibly next week.
Since the 2001 attacks, the staunchly conservative Ashcroft has been vilified by political opponents, civil liberties groups and privacy advocates for pushing controversial counterterrorism policies, which critics say undermine freedoms. They include the Patriot Act, which bolstered FBI surveillance and law enforcement powers in terror cases; increased use of material witness warrants to hold suspects incommunicado for months; and secret proceedings in immigration cases.
Ashcroft made no apology for his actions, saying he has enjoyed full support from President Bush.
"The president understands that this is almost mission impossible, to keep winning every day," he said. "To be always the winner and never be the loser is a very difficult task. The world is not absent terror. But the United States has been absent terror."
His greatest failure, Ashcroft said, was in not fully explaining to the American people early on just how the Patriot Act has helped in that war. Time will prove that the law has not been the threat to the Constitution seen by some, he said.
"Rights have not been infringed. Human dignity has not suffered. It's been enhanced and it has not carried a cost or toll on the civil liberties of America," Ashcroft said.
More than 375 people have been charged in terror-related prosecutions in the United States since the 2001 attacks, with 195 either convicted or entering guilty pleas. Yet Ashcroft said officials continue to receive reports of "individuals who are sympathizers" with Al-Qaida or other terror groups coming into the United States after meeting with people overseas with links to terrorism or attending events that include "inappropriate extremist or terrorist instruction."
"We have to remain on guard. America, as open and free as it is, is going to have to pay a price in terms of understanding and being vigilant about potentials that freedom and openness are associated with," he said. Ashcroft also said the Justice Department deserved praise for handling some 400 corporate malfeasance cases, helping drive the nation's crime rate to 30-year lows and making strides in civil rights prosecutions.