From boat person to terror war point man

Viet Dinh, a key backer of tough steps by the Justice Department, leaves a controversial legacy.

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.

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.

At least 117 cities and towns - including Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit - have passed resolutions against the act, according to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee in Northampton, Mass.

"[Dinh's] very much done the administration's bidding in a way that poses serious threats to constitutional and civil rights and liberties," said Elliot Mincberg, of the People for the American Way.

Dinh defends the Patriot Act. "Our success in preventing attacks would not have been possible without it," Dinh said. His make-no-apologies attitude is common in the Ashcroft Justice Department, where, critics say, waging a war against terror means never having to say you're sorry.

Thus far, the nation's top courts are upholding many of the Justice Department's policies. Just as Dinh prepared to step down, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to a policy that barred the public from immigration deportation hearings.

The war against terror occupied most of Dinh's attention. For several weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Dinh slept on a black leather couch in his office.

Above his sofa, Dinh hung an eighteenth century Korean painting, a reminder of his Asian heritage, he said. After fleeing Vietnam in 1978, Dinh and his family eventually made it to Oregon, but it took years until they reunited with his father, who was held in a Communist reeducation camp.

Dinh's eyes filled with tears during his Senate confirmation hearing, as senators described his rise from refugee to Harvard Law School student and clerk to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "I feel very grateful to have been given the opportunity to repay the debt my family and I owe to America for our freedom and the opportunity they've given me," Dinh said.

Now, he'll return to his full-time job as a law professor at Georgetown University. His leave of absence is up and he recently got engaged. Plus, Dinh said, "I don't believe in a perpetual life in government."

(Editor's note: The original version of this story mentioned a Time magazine report that Viet Dinh is among Justice Department officials advised to seek legal counsel in case immigration detainees sue the government. The magazine has withdrawn the report.)

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