John Ashcroft, hero of religious right, quits administration

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The Independent US

The US attorney general John Ashcroft, a right-wing evangelical who has been a lightning rod for critics of the Bush administration, announced his resignation last night.

The US attorney general John Ashcroft, a right-wing evangelical who has been a lightning rod for critics of the Bush administration, announced his resignation last night.

In a five-page handwritten letter to President George Bush, Mr Ashcroft, 62, said he believed that despite the progress made at the Department of Justice, it would be well served by the energy of a new leader.

"The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved," he wrote. "Yet I believe that the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspiration. I believe that my energies and talents should be directed toward other challenging horizons."

Before the election it had been widely rumoured that Mr Ashcroft - said to have something of a fractious relationship with the White House - would not serve in a second Bush term. But in the aftermath of the vote, in which evangelicals came out and supported the President like never before, there was speculation that Mr Ashcroft might be asked to stay on as some sort of payback to the religious right.

That has not happened. The White House spokesman Scott McClellan, said the President accepted Mr Ashcroft's resignation, along with that of the Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, who also announced his departure last night.

Both Mr Ashcroft and Mr Evans had served since the beginning of Mr Bush's presidency. In his resignation letter, Mr Evans, a close friend of the President from Texas, wrote: "While the promise of your second term shines bright, I have concluded with deep regret that it is time for me to return home." Of all the figures within the Bush administration there are none who have drawn the ire of opponents as strongly as Mr Ashcroft, the son of a minister and who is considered anti-gay, pro-death and pro-guns. It was he who was responsible for pushing through the Patriot Act in the aftermath of 11 September which gave law enforcement agencies unprecedented access people's private information.

Mr Ashcroft's department has also been at the centre of many of the controversies over America's treatment of terrorism suspects and the refusal to grant them access to either courts or lawyers.

Mr Ashcroft, a fine baritone who after the attacks on New York and Washington penned a patriotic dirge called "Let Eagles Soar", has also been a figure of fun. Critics mocked his decision to order drapes to cover two naked aluminium Art Deco statues in the Justice Department.

Meanwhile, there have been few more peculiar mental images than that created by reports from Camp David in the week after 11 September which told how Mr Ashcroft had sought to keep spirits high in the early hours by playing hymns on the piano while the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice sang along.

Speculation about Mr Ashcroft's replacement has focused on his former deputy, Larry Thompson. One name that has been mentioned for Mr Evans's job is Mercer Reynolds, national finance chairman for the re-election campaign, who raised more than $260m.

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