John Ashcroft on Homeland Security
Former Attorney General; Former Republican Senator (MO)
We both recognized that it would leave CIA personal exposed, in a sense, because they had done rough stuff in reliance on a legal opinion that was now withdrawn. The interrogators weren't lawyers; they had a right to rely on the advice of government counsel. But they had acted based on bad advice from the Justice Department, and that shouldn't continue. A new legal opinion had to be written that was legally sound and firmly grounded in the facts.
COMEY: Yeah, I did. My boss, John Ashcroft, was in intensive care at George Washington Hospital. And although we had told the White House we can't certify [NSA domestic surveillance], the president was sending two of his top people to the hospital. I ran over, to make sure a desperately ill man wasn't asked to sign something when he wasn't competent to sign it and I was the acting attorney general.
Q: And in the end, he didn't sign it?
COMEY: The White House [officials] tried to get John Ashcroft to sign off on this program that we had said couldn't continue because it didn't have a lawful basis. And Ashcroft shocked me by pushing himself up on his elbows & blasting them. And telling them he had been misled. They had deprived him of the legal advice he needed. The [White House officials] walked out.
One major gap in our counterterrorism capabilities was what many called "the wall." Over time, the government had adopted a set of procedures that prevented law enforcement and intelligence personnel from sharing key information. "How can we possibly assure our citizens we are protecting the if our own people can't even talk to each other?" I said.
Ashcroft took the lead in writing a legislative proposal. The result was the USA PATRIOT Act. The bill eliminated the wall and allowed law enforcement and intelligence personnel to share information. It modernized our counterterrorism capabilities by giving investigators access to tools like roving wiretaps, which allowed them to track suspects who changed cell phone numbers--an authority that had long been used to catch drug traffickers
Later that afternoon, Ashcroft had a far different message. He went to the airwaves to ask Americans to be on the lookout for Adam Yahiy Gadahn. Born Adam Pearlman, he appeared on a number of Al Qaeda videos, and was identified on these as "Azzam the American." He was subsequently charged in this country with treason.
But Ashcroft's warning that a plot that Gadahn and others were involved in--by Ashcroft's estimation, 90% done--a massive attack on the US, seemed to us at DHS to be overstated, to put it charitably.
I was told by the president bluntly that I had undermined Ashcroft. I was reminded that counterterrorism is one of the administration's highest priorities, and that a unified front ad to be presented. The Department of Justice was unapologetic about playing offense. DHS played defense. Advantage DOJ.
Attorney General John Ashcroft had become a strong internal advocate for starting tribunals. One way or another, the detainee cases were going to wind up reviewed by the federal courts. If they didn't have a credible tribunal process up and running, Ashcroft said, the Justice Department would be dead in the water when they tried to defend the system at the federal appeals courts.
At an NSC meeting with the president, Bush asked Rumsfeld, "Don, what do you think about this?"
"They are bad guys," Rumsfeld said.
It was as if the NSC had one serious, formal process going on while the president and Rumsfeld had another one--informal, chatty and dominant.
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