By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
Former attorney general John D. Ashcroft defended his approach to forestalling terrorist attacks but told lawmakers yesterday that he moved quickly to respond to concerns that some Justice Department memos employed shoddy reasoning.
In his first Capitol Hill appearance to address national security issues since leaving the Justice Department three years ago, Ashcroft batted away probing questions, blaming his memory and citing the still-classified status of memos and programs the Bush administration adopted after Sept. 11, 2001.
Pressed by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, he argued that coercive interrogation techniques including waterboarding did not meet the legal definition of torture. Ashcroft said he was aware of no evidence during his term that would have prompted him to open a criminal investigation into actions by interrogators.
He refused repeated invitations to directly criticize John C. Yoo, who as a deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel worked closely with vice presidential aide David S. Addington and then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to draft legal memos underpinning treatment of detainees and a warrantless surveillance initiative. Ashcroft later rescinded two of those memos, citing faulty reasoning.
But in an elliptical way, Ashcroft alluded to objections he raised at the highest levels of the White House about the importance of independent, detached advice after Yoo became an unsuccessful candidate to lead the OLC in 2003. He was even more cryptic when lawmakers asked him to recount a now-famous episode the next year, when Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. appeared at his hospital room in an attempt to persuade him to overrule a Justice Department colleague and reauthorize a secret data-collection program.
"I'm trying to think of all the reasons it would be inappropriate for me to answer that question," he said. Later, he told the panel members that he had been in intensive care with acute pancreatitis for about a week at the time of the evening visit.
"I had not had food or drink, so I was thirsty and hungry and I might have been grouchy. . . . What's more, they were poking needles into me all of the time."
Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) pressed Ashcroft on whether he or others at the Justice Department provided legal advice to CIA agents who questioned al-Qaeda operative Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, commonly known as Abu Zubaida, for several months beginning in March 2002. A formal Office of Legal Counsel memo supporting the aggressive interrogation strategies was not issued until August of that year.
That timeline led Christopher Anders, a senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, to question whether the interrogators operated outside the bounds of the law and whether they could face investigation for what one FBI agent later told the Justice inspector general was "borderline torture."
Current Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, in a letter to lawmakers last week, said government officials had sought advice from the Justice Department "as to the lawfulness of the proposed course of conduct" before the CIA employed the techniques.