Ashcroft's Complex Tenure At Justice
On Some Issues, He Battled White House
By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 20, 2007; Page A01
As attorney general, John D. Ashcroft was the public
face of an administration pushing the boundaries of
the Constitution to hunt down terrorists, but behind
the scenes, according to former aides and White House
officials, he at times resisted what he saw as radical
Testimony last week that a hospitalized Ashcroft
rebuffed aides to President Bush intent on gaining
Ashcroft's approval of a surveillance program he had
deemed illegal provided a rare view of the inner
workings of the early Bush presidency and the depth of
internal disagreement over how far to go in responding
to the threat of terrorism after the attacks of Sept.
According to former officials, it was not the only
time that the former Missouri senator chosen for the
Bush Cabinet in part for his ties to the Christian
right would challenge the White House in private. In
addition to rejecting to the most expansive version of
the warrantless eavesdropping program, the officials
said, Ashcroft also opposed holding detainees
indefinitely at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba, without some form of due process. He fought
to guarantee some rights for those to be tried by
newly created military commissions. And he insisted
that Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of conspiring with
the Sept. 11 hijackers, be prosecuted in a civilian
These internal disputes often put Ashcroft at odds
with Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary
Donald H. Rumsfeld, said the officials, who recalled
heated exchanges in front of the president. In the
end, the officials said, the conflicts contributed to
Ashcroft's departure at the conclusion of Bush's first
term, when the president replaced him with a close
friend from Texas, Alberto R. Gonzales, who presumably
would be more deferential to the White House.
None of this meant that Ashcroft was a closet liberal.
He championed a broad expansion of government power to
investigate possible terrorist cells through the USA
Patriot Act, authorized the detention of hundreds
without charges in the days after Sept. 11, pushed
immigration agents to fully use their power to deport
foreigners, secured new authority to peer into private
records even in libraries, and oversaw legal
interpretations that opened the door to harsh
interrogation techniques that critics called torture.
"All of us wanted to err on the side of public safety
after the attacks," said former deputy attorney
general Larry D. Thompson. But even while taking an
"aggressive stand" on the Patriot Act and other
measures, "John was completely devoted to the
Department of Justice and completely devoted to the
Constitution," Thompson said.
Ashcroft declined to comment last week. But Mark
Corallo, his former spokesman, said that when it came
to resisting what he considered excesses, "he really
did throw some sharp elbows."
Ashcroft's public statements and actions prompted some
liberals at the time to call him a "zealot" and accuse
him of "shredding the Constitution." Sen. John F.
Kerry (D-Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential
nominee, urged voters to "end the era of John
Ashcroft." But the account of a nighttime hospital
confrontation between Ashcroft and Bush aides --
provided Tuesday by Thompson's successor, James B.
Comey, to the Senate Judiciary Committee -- prompted
something of a reappraisal of Ashcroft by some on the
left last week.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised his "fidelity
to the rule of law." The Wonkette Web site posted the
headline: "Ashcroft Takes Heroic Stand." Under a
similar headline, "John Ashcroft, American Hero,"
Andrew Sullivan expressed astonishment on his Atlantic
magazine blog that "John Ashcroft was way too moderate
for these people. John Ashcroft."
Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal group People
for the American Way and one of Ashcroft's strongest
critics over the years, said the incident told more
about his successor, Gonzales, who was one of the two
Bush aides at the hospital that night.
"I did not think it was even possible to make John
Ashcroft into a civil libertarian," Neas said in an
interview. "But somehow Alberto Gonzales for at least
one moment managed to make John Ashcroft into a
defender of the Constitution."
Still, critics were not ready to embrace Ashcroft,
even if they considered him a hero for that night in
the hospital. "That's fair, I think he was," said Tom
Malinowski of Human Rights Watch. "Clearly, we had an
attorney general at that point who at least had
strong, independent views. . . . I just wish Ashcroft
had exhibited similar independence on the issue of
Ashcroft was a failed presidential candidate and a
Missouri senator who had just lost reelection to a
dead man when Bush picked him to become attorney
general in 2001. A favorite of Christian
conservatives, he quickly drew attention when he held
prayer sessions in his Justice Department office and
when aides ordered $8,000 drapes to cover the
bare-breasted "Spirit of Justice" sculpture in the
building's Great Hall. He fought vigorously against
abortion, affirmative action and gun control.
After Sept. 11, his department became the crucible for
forging new law enforcement and intelligence-gathering
methods, and he pressed aides to be creative in the
use of power to stop any further attacks. He helped
push through the Patriot Act by the end of that year,
and he faced off against then-Secretary of State Colin
L. Powell over whether to grant Guantanamo detainees
the protections that prisoners of war are entitled to
under the Geneva Conventions.
Ashcroft wanted to be able to interrogate detainees,
while Powell argued that observing the conventions
would discourage abuse of captured U.S. soldiers. The
White House largely sided with Ashcroft, deciding not
to grant detainees prisoner of war status.
But former officials said Ashcroft also rejected ideas
he considered extreme. When one aide made such a
suggestion, colleagues said Ashcroft replied, "I know
I asked you to think outside the box, but I don't want
you to think outside the Constitution." Chuck
Rosenberg, who was Comey's chief of staff and is now a
U.S. attorney in Virginia, said, "I always thought
Ashcroft was an extremely principled guy."
Ashcroft wanted to interrogate Guantanamo detainees,
but former officials said he also argued that they had
to be given some form of legal process, putting him at
odds with Rumsfeld and Cheney. When Rumsfeld backed
off and proposed creating military tribunals, Ashcroft
again chafed. For instance, former officials said, he
objected to the fact that detainees would have no
right to appeal verdicts and forced that to be
"He was personally offended about the way they went
about it," said one former aide who spoke on the
condition of anonymity to discuss internal
deliberations. "He said something to Rumsfeld like,
'You guys gave more process to [Oklahoma City bomber]
Tim McVeigh than you are doing in this case, and you
knew he did it.' He understood we had to hold these
guys and that it could still be done with some sense
of process and American fairness. He kept asking, 'Why
are we creating problems?' "
Out of loyalty to Bush, former aides said, Ashcroft
did not make these dissents public.
"He was a voice for moderation on a wide range of
issues that he never got credit for because he did it
the right way, behind the scenes," said another former
official who asked not to be named. "On many, many
issues the administration has gotten itself in trouble
on, if they had listened to his advice, they would
have been better off."
That is not the way it was seen in the White House.
Ashcroft was viewed by some Bush aides as too
independent and eager for the spotlight; he
particularly irritated them by arranging a satellite
hookup from Moscow, where he was visiting, to announce
the arrest of terrorism suspect Jose Padilla.
"They resented some of his showboating," said a former
White House aide who did not want to be identified to
avoid offending Ashcroft. "Almost alone among the
Cabinet secretaries, he was seen as a self-promoter
By the time Bush won a second term, Ashcroft had
decided to step down and the White House made clear
that was fine. But he feared internal rivals would
leak his decision, so he wrote his resignation letter
by hand and personally delivered it to Bush on
Election Day, Corallo said.
"He was not going to trust these people to spin his
resignation and backstab him any more," he said. "In
the end, the only one he trusted was the president."
Staff writer John Solomon contributed to this report.