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Ashcroft's Complex Tenure At Justice

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/19/AR2007051901275.html?referrer=email Ashcroft s Complex Tenure At Justice On Some Issues, He
    Message 1 of 1 , May 20, 2007

      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.
      11, 2001.

      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
      and grandstander."

      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.
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