Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Boat Person to Terror War Point Man ; Viet Dinh, a Key Backer of Tough Steps by the Justice Department, Leaves a Controversial Legacy

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Boat Person to Terror War Point Man ; Viet Dinh, a Key Backer of Tough Steps by the Justice Department, Leaves a Controversial Legacy

Article excerpt

As a young boy, Viet Dinh fled war-ravaged Vietnam with his mother and siblings aboard a 15-foot boat.

So no one could send them back, his mother chopped their boat up with an ax when they reached the Malaysian coast after 12 days at sea. Eventually, he said, they made their way to the US as refugees.

In the years since, Mr. Dinh rose to Assistant Attorney General, the highest government post ever held by a Vietnamese-American - and has used that post to wage a legal war on terrorism that includes controversial scrutiny of immigrants.

As head of the Office of Legal Policy, traditionally a Justice Department backwater, Dinh played a key role crafting and defending Attorney General John Ashcroft's strategy for pursuing Al Qaeda. He wrote legislation expanding police surveillance powers. He contributed to proposals to watch foreign students, fingerprint thousands of Middle Eastern visitors, and allow greater collaboration between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. And he has no regrets.

Since Sept. 11, "our nation's ability to defend itself against terror has been not only my vocation but my obsession," Dinh said during his final interview last month, before stepping down from his post.

That resolve, and its controversial legacy, was echoed last week as Mr. Ashcroft faced heavy criticism for some of those Justice Department policies, even as he urged Congress to bolster his ability to hunt down terrorists. Ashcroft spoke for five hours before the House Judiciary Committee, responding to the department Inspector General's critical report on the detention of 762 foreigners.

Although the report did not mention Dinh by name, he is among top Justice Department officials who have been advised to obtain counsel in case detainees sue over their treatment, Time magazine reported.

Dinh's achievements haven't won him many fans among civil libertarians and liberal politicians. Local governments are openly challenging what Dinh describes as his office's most significant accomplishment, the USA Patriot Act. Enacted within six weeks of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the act makes it easier for the Justice Department to require libraries to document patrons' reading habits and track e-mail addresses. …

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