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COLUMN ONE

At Home in War on Terror

Viet Dinh has gone from academe to a key behind-the scenes role. Conservatives love him; others find his views constitutionally suspect.

September 18, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LORETTO, Pa. — Viet Dinh is working the room. Viet Dinh, it seems, is always working a room.

The room itself isn't much, at least not by the standards of one of the rising stars of the Bush administration. A hundred or so faculty members and supporters at Saint Francis University in rural Pennsylvania are lunching in a nondescript student center to hear Dinh, advisor to U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and a point man in the war on terrorism, philosophize about how liberty and freedom can thrive even in a time of national crisis.

But look closer, and the Vietnamese-born, Southern California-bred Dinh has a more immediate agenda. Seated at lunch next to him is a local district judge, D. Brooks Smith, whose promotion to a federal appellate court has been imperiled by protests over his civil rights record. Literally and figuratively, Dinh is at Smith's side.

Amid Dinh's broad legal colloquies and historical references to Nathan Hale and William Penn, he delivers an impassioned endorsement of Smith. He steps up the drumbeat for local television reporters after his speech, decrying the "liberal activists" who have threatened to derail President Bush's nominee.

The scene is typical of Dinh and his remarkable ascent to power: Part law school professor, part political pit bull, Dinh has navigated seamlessly between the worlds of Ivory Tower academia and sharp-elbowed Washington politics to leave his imprint on a wide array of policy decisions.

If Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are the face of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign, Dinh and a small cadre of other behind-the-scenes advisors have emerged as its brain trust.

At age 34, he already has filled a resume befitting a man twice his age: boat refugee from Vietnam, Oregon fruit picker, Orange County burger-flipper, Harvard Law School graduate, U.S. Supreme Court clerk, Georgetown Law School professor, constitutional scholar, lawyer to a high-powered congressional committee. His is "a spectacular American story," Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) said in introducing Dinh to the Senate during his confirmation hearings 16 months ago.

Dinh's current role as an assistant attorney general clearly has given him his most important platform yet. At first a somewhat obscure player in Ashcroft's Justice Department, his prominence in recent months has made him both a darling of the conservative movement and a lightning rod for criticism from liberal-leaning politicians and civil rights activists who assert that his views run roughshod over the Constitution.

On topics as far-ranging as gun control, cyber pornography, human trafficking and the selection of new federal judges, Dinh has played an increasingly critical role in shaping federal law enforcement policy. But nowhere has his impact been felt more keenly than in the Bush administration's highest priority: its aggressive war on terrorism.

Crafted Patriot Act

Dinh was the chief architect of the USA Patriot Act, the legislation approved by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that gives law enforcement agencies vastly expanded powers to track terror suspects. He has been the official responsible for crafting a series of anti-terrorism initiatives that would, among other things, require the fingerprinting of potentially tens of thousands of visiting foreigners from Middle East countries and would put foreign students on a much tighter leash.

He revamped the law enforcement guidelines that Ashcroft announced in May to give FBI agents new powers to snoop in mosques and surf the Internet. And he is now working on a plan to promote better coordination within the Justice Department and with agencies such as the CIA, a task aimed at preventing the communication breakdowns that preceded Sept. 11.

"I did not sign up for a war," Dinh said in an interview. "But it's a privilege, a profound honor really, to serve your country in a time of crisis. I can't imagine a better place for me to be right now."

What is perhaps most surprising to Justice Department observers is that Dinh has achieved such influence as one of 11 assistant attorneys general in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy. The office was once a low-profile, somewhat nebulous operation chiefly concerned with federal judicial nominations--''a backwater,'' one former employee, who worked for the department during Janet Reno's tenure, called it. But with Ashcroft's blessing, Dinh has expanded the office's reach into areas once considered far outside its domain.

Ashcroft's a Fan

Dinh, a wiry, energetic man who spews out ideas and legal theory at a furious staccato clip, has turned his boss into one of his biggest fans.

"It's hard to point to a part of this department," Ashcroft said in an interview, "that isn't related to sound legal policy, so [Dinh] has become an integral part of virtually every decision we make.... He operates on a gold-medal level."

Dinh recalls the instructions Ashcroft gave him when he took over the job last year.

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