Ashcroft said the "sacrifice and courage" of the Justice Department's employees worldwide is a main reason terrorists have not struck inside the United States in nearly three years and violent crime has dropped to 30-year lows.
But Ashcroft, in an end-of-year speech beamed to department workers around the country, urged continued vigilance against al Qaeda and its sympathizers who seek to repeat attacks of the scale of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Al Qaeda has not lost its thirst for American blood," Ashcroft said in the department's Great Hall. "We know terrorists will strike when and if they can."
Ashcroft, who is stepping down early next year, said that 375 people have been charged in terror-related cases over the past three years and 190 have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Just as important, he said, is the newfound cooperation between the FBI and other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
"Our journey has been one of sacrifice and courage and triumph against long odds," the attorney general said.
He also cited a host of statistics showing that violent crime has fallen to three-decade lows, that prosecutions for gun crimes are up significantly and that efforts to focus law enforcement attention on high-crime neighborhoods are beginning to pay off.
The Justice Department's efforts, he said, have contributed to "a historic era of safety and security."
In his farewell speech, Ashcroft said that confidence in U.S. markets has been restored in part through prosecution of some 900 people in high-profile corporate fraud cases.
"Clearly the Justice Department's dogged approach to white collar crime stands as one of its most impressive (and most surprising) achievements," said .
"The successes of the Justice Department during Ashcroft's tenure — and there have been many — have been of the lower profile variety; the type that don't necessarily make great copy and certainly don't generate exciting press conference opportunities, except when the defendant happened to be Martha Stewart or Kenneth Lay," said Cohen.
Ashcroft will leave the department as soon as his nominated successor is confirmed by the Senate. President Bush has chosen White House counsel to replace John Ashcroft, reports CBS News Correspondent John Hartge.
During his tenure, Ashcroft has endured withering criticism from political opponents and a wide range of outside advocacy groups for his policies on the death penalty, civil liberties, gun laws, abortion and other issues. In his introduction of Ashcroft, Deputy Attorney General James Comey alluded to those controversies in quoting a famous Theodore Roosevelt speech from 1910.
"'It is not the critic who counts,'" Comey quoted. "'The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.'"