Ashcroft's Complex Tenure At Justice

Former attorney general John Ashcroft, shown testifying on Capitol Hill, sometimes found himself at odds with Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Former attorney general John Ashcroft, shown testifying on Capitol Hill, sometimes found himself at odds with Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. (By Ray Lustig -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 20, 2007

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 overreaching.

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 court.

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 torture."

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