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9/18/02 Los Angeles Times: "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."
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Amid Dinh's broad legal colloquies and historical references to Nathan Hale and William Penn, he delivers an impassioned endorsement of Smith.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.
"He told me: 'The art of leadership is the redefinition of the possible. I want you to be the think tank to help me redefine the possible for the Department of Justice.' That was a great charge for an academic," Dinh said.
Some Republicans even speculate that Dinh could someday be a candidate for the first Asian American justice on the Supreme Court. But with success and visibility have come a growing chorus of critics who attack his policies and politics.
Democrats on Capitol Hill have publicly chastised Dinh for disregarding the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans. An irritated former Secretary of State Warren Christopher challenged him at a law conference last summer by suggesting that the administration's refusal to identify terrorist detainees reminded him of Argentina's notorious practice of simply making prisoners "disappear." And gun control advocates accuse Dinh of serving as Ashcroft's buffer on 2nd Amendment issues, helping to scale back regulations for enforcing gun laws.
"John Ashcroft has put together the most right-wing legal team in modern Justice Department history, and Viet Dinh is, by all accounts, a principal player. His impact has been felt across the department," said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal civil rights group.
Where Bush administration loyalists see an aggressive counterattack on terrorism, civil rights activists see an infringement on American liberties. Where supporters see well-crafted public policy, critics see far-reaching edicts made under a veil of secrecy.
"When you start acting by executive fiat, that's what leads to governmental abuses," Neas said, "and that's why I'm so worried about what Viet Dinh and John Ashcroft have been doing in the last year."
Nearly a quarter-century later, Dinh still becomes emotional when remembering one scene: his mother in a Malaysian port, wielding an ax that seemed bigger than she was, whacking holes in the side of the vessel so she and five of her children would not be sent back out to sea.
It was 1978. Dinh was 10. His father was being held as a political prisoner in the family's war-ravaged homeland, when his mother, Nga Thu Nguyen, tried to escape by sea with Viet and the other children. They were among 85 people crammed on a 15-foot-long boat, but as Dinh's mother recalled in a recent telephone interview from her Garden Grove home, "after three days, the boat was broken. After seven days, there was no more food or water."
After 12 days, she had lost nearly all hope. But they came upon a Thai fishing crew who gave them food and gas, helped fix the boat and pointed them toward land. They reached Malaysia--only to be met by gunshots from a patrol boat. The Malaysians didn't want them. Their boat managed to dock, but Nguyen realized that the port police would force them to leave the next morning, so she crept back out to the boat alone that night with an ax, she said. "I just hit it and hit it and made holes everywhere," she said.
Dinh, recounting the events last year before the Senate Judiciary Committee as his nomination was considered, said it demonstrated for him the "incredible courage" of his mother and the "incredible lengths" to which people will go in search of freedom.
The administration's critics now find it ironic that Dinh, a refugee himself and an inspiration to many Asian Americans in Southern California, would advance policies that civil libertarians say place many Arabs and Arab Americans under a cloud of suspicion. But Dinh counters that his experience has given him a "special sensitivity to what it means to be an American" and how important it is to apply the law equally, regardless of race or ethnicity.
After six months as refugees in Malaysia, Dinh's family made it to Oregon for Thanksgiving of 1978. They picked strawberries for menial wages, sending money back to Dinh's father and a sibling hiding out in Vietnam. After Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, the crop damage forced his family to relocate to Fullerton.
In Orange County, the teenager worked with his mother in a sewing shop and put in time at fast-food restaurants after school. The family's persistence paid off in 1983 when Dinh's father finally made it to America. Dinh's parents wanted him to be a doctor. But politics was his passion, an interest fueled by his mother.
''He had a hatred of the Communists because I made him understand it was the Communists who had taken his father away from the house and put him in prison,'' Nguyen said. ''I instilled that in him early on.''
Like many Vietnamese immigrants, Dinh's emotional experience in his homeland steered him toward the Republican Party because of the GOP's hard-line stance against communism.
Garden Grove Councilman Van Tran remembers Dinh, just out of Fullerton High School, volunteering to work the phone banks at an Asian American voter registration center set up by then-Rep. Robert K. Dornan.
"He used to call me anh, or 'elder brother.' He stood out even then as a lanky 18-year-old because he was someone who was very quick and very witty," Tran said.
Dinh's reputation as affable, bright and politically astute would follow him through Harvard University and Harvard Law School, which he attended with the aid of scholarships and graduated magna cum laude, and to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"He was a wonderful law clerk," O'Connor recalled recently. "I was so fascinated by his background and the fact that he had arrived on our shores with nothing but the clothes on his back, yet somehow he had persevered."
By 1999, Dinh had firmly established his Republican credentials as a lawyer for two of the most bitterly partisan initiatives in Washington, working first for Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) in the Senate investigation into President Clinton's Whitewater dealings in the mid-1990s, and later for Domenici during Clinton's impeachment trial.
When the 2000 presidential election led to a landmark lawsuit, Dinh was there to write a friend-of-the-court brief before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a group of Florida voters who backed Bush's position.
When Ashcroft's nomination as attorney general ran into widespread opposition in January 2001 over his record on civil rights and other issues, Dinh wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post extolling Ashcroft's "deep compassion" for minorities.
And when Dinh was nominated a few months after that article to become one of Ashcroft's top deputies, he contacted Tran and asked him to call Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) to see whether she would be willing to introduce him at his Senate confirmation hearings, even though he was a Republican nominee, Tran said. Dinh's nomination was confirmed by a 96-1 vote in the Senate.
Dinh was feted as a returning hero at a Vietnamese American festival in Orange County last year.
"Sanchez understood right away the political significance of such a gesture, and Viet got a bipartisan introduction" before the Senate, Tran said. "I thought it was a brilliant move on his part."
Too brilliant, some of his Democratic detractors on Capitol Hill say. While demanding anonymity because of frayed relations with Ashcroft's office, several Democratic officials describe Dinh in terms such as "rawly political," and have even coined a derisive nickname to describe his aggressive politicking: "Viet Spin."
Democrats whisper that during his days on the Whitewater investigation, Dinh was suspected of leaking confidential information to the news media in order to hurt Clinton.
Dinh vehemently denies the charge, but Democrats say lingering resentments over his Whitewater days--Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y) was the only senator to vote against his confirmation--have hurt his relations on Capitol Hill and caused tensions as the Ashcroft administration has pushed to expand its law enforcement powers.
No Time for Golf
If such political sniping has bothered Dinh, he doesn't show it. Indeed, about the only regret that Dinh, a bachelor, confesses is that his hectic pace has given him time to hit the golf links only once or twice since Sept. 11.
After reaching a pinnacle in his career, he insists his mind is squarely focused on the task at hand: revamping federal law enforcement to confront the threat of terrorism.
That has to be "the overriding priority," Dinh said. "The day that we relax is either the day that we have definitely won this war or the day that I get somebody else to continue my job."
5/10/01 The Orange County Register: "Ex-refugee is nominated for Justice post: A Fullerton High grad gets praise at his Senate confirmation hearing."
Viet Dinh wiped tears from his eyes as a United States senator chronicled his remarkable journey from a 10-year-old fleeing Vietnam in a boat to a law professor facing a congressional panel Wednesday as a nominee for assistant attorney general.
For a young Dinh and his family it was the point of no return. They had fled Vietnam by boat in 1978. After 12 days with no food or water, they landed in a port in Malaysia, where they were met by gunfire and cast back into the South China Sea.
That night they swam ashore, sure their boat could not withstand another sea voyage. Dinh's mother, Nguyen, stayed aboard and, "wielding an ax that was almost as tall as she was," put a hole in the side of the boat to sink it so they would not be forced back to sea, Dinh said.
"That image of my mother destroying our last link to Vietnam really stands in my mind to this day as to the courage she possesses, but also the incredible lengths which my parents, like so many other people, have gone to in order to find that promise of freedom and opportunity."
"This is a spectacular American story," Sen. Pete Domenici said Wednesday as he introduced Dinh, formerly of Orange County, who was the New Mexico Republican's special counsel for President Clinton's impeachment trial. Dinh was before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which could vote as early as today on his confirmation as assistant attorney general for policy development.
"You've got a Vietnamese scholar who just 23 years ago was a young man out on a boat at sea who could just as well have drowned, and we never would have heard from him. But because of a loving family around him, they eventually ended up American citizens."
As Domenici talked, Dinh's parents -- who split their time between Garden Grove and Salem, Ore. -- sat proudly next to their son. Dinh's lower lip quivered as he fought the emotion of the moment.
His journey and the patriotism for his new country came flooding back, he said, as he heard Domenici's words.
The young professor has seen much in his 33 years.
His family was separated in 1975 when his father, Phong Dinh, was imprisoned in a re-education camp after the fall of Saigon. His father escaped in 1978, and while he remained a fugitive in Vietnam, Dinh's mother, Nga Nguyen and his older siblings got on a boat with 85 other people and set out for freedom.
After their harrowing journey and a stay at a refugee camp in Malaysia, they made their way to the United States.
The family began their life in America in Portland, Ore., picking strawberries. But the eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano in 1980 wiped out their livelihood. They moved to Orange County.
Dinh was reunited with his father in 1983. In 1992, he was reunited with one of his sisters at a refugee camp in Hong Kong -- a meeting filmed by NBC's Dateline newsmagazine show.
Those who knew Dinh during his teen-age years in Orange County are not surprised by his success at such a young age. They describe him as an outgoing, gregarious teen-ager with an incredibly bright and inquisitive mind.
Fullerton High School classmate James Campbell, called him a "well rounded whiz kid. He seized all the things that a lot of us take for granted about this country," said Campbell, a spokesman for Supervisor Charles Smith.
Dinh will be honored by his high school alma mater this fall when he is added to Fullerton's wall of fame. He will share that wall with an ideological opposite, David Boies, former Vice President Al Gore's lawyer for the Florida recount.
Dinh was a familiar figure during that historical case, delivering sound bites on CNN and other network news shows. And Dinh filed a brief with the Supreme Court in favor of George W. Bush.
For many in the Vietnamese legal community in Orange County, Dinh is viewed as a trailblazer and risk taker.
"With his achievements, he puts the idea that a Vietnamese- American can be successful in law and on a national level," said Hao-Nhien Vu, a Garden Grove lawyer. If confirmed, Dinh will be the highest-ranking Vietnamese- American legal official in the nation. "A lot of people will be watching what he does and learning from his example."
And he honed his political skills early.
Van Thai Tran, a lawyer and Garden Grove councilman, first met Dinh in 1986 when the 17-year-old showed up at a voter-registration drive and volunteered to help.
"Even then he was quick-witted," Tran said.
Dinh is not expected to face a difficult confirmation. But Democrats and Republicans on the committee are feuding over the confirmation process for federal judges, and it was clear Wednesday that Department of Justice nominations are caught in the crossfire.
The only critical questioning Dinh faced was from Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt. Leahy asked Dinh how he could be in charge of reviewing judicial nominees when he has never been a trial lawyer. Dinh went directly from clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to a political post and then to Georgetown Law Center as a professor.
Dinh said he would look to those in the department with such experience for help.
It's traditional for lawmakers close to the nominee or from their hometown to formally introduce him to the panel. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, who represents a large part of the Vietnamese -American community in Orange County, introduced Dinh along with Domenici.
Sanchez met with him Tuesday. She said she was satisfied that "as an immigrant himself, he wants to make sure the gates are open for other immigrants." She also talked to Dinh about racial profiling, an issue Attorney General John Ashcroft says is a high priority.
"He said that was of great interest to him," Sanchez said, "because he himself has experienced that sort of discrimination."
Dinh says he's not looking beyond his new job.
"It will be in the public service,'' Dinh said. "I am really enamored by the institutions of government. They protect the most precious aspect of America, the promise of opportunity and freedom.
"Even when I was in the refugee camp, I knew the value of this promise."