Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Sick Man of Washington

You know, it's weird. Back in the early days of the administration, John Ashcroft was kind of the poster-boy for the really scary excesses of the Bush regime. Theoconservative ex-Senator from Missouri who lost his re-election to a dead guy? He did some pretty weird things as Attorney General, and was the front from some of President Bush's earliest travesties, like the USA PATRIOT act.

But after his resignation and as time passed, new information began to emerge. Despite the rep, and despite the public image, it turns out Ashcroft was one of the chief internal critics of Bush's radical expansion of executive powers in the wake of 9/11. And so in that vein, we get an interesting story from CNN, about how the Bush Administration tried to get Ashcroft to sign off on a domestic spying program while he was hospitalized recovering from gall bladder surgery. Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey described the events:
In his testimony Tuesday, Comey recounted Ashcroft's wife calling a Justice Department official that night informing her [White House Chief of Staff Andrew] Card and [then White House Counsel Alberto] Gonzales were on their way to see Ashcroft. She had banned all outside phone calls and visitors, Comey said.

He immediately headed to the hospital and soon after he got there, the White House officials entered. He said Ashcroft, who had been weak from gall bladder surgery, "very strongly expressed himself" regarding his objections to a classified program, but added that his views didn't matter because he was, temporarily, not the attorney general.

Comey said Card and Gonzales then left the hospital room without acknowledging him.

"I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me. I thought he had conducted himself -- and I said to the attorney general -- in a way that demonstrated a strength that I had never seen before, but still I thought it was improper," Comey told the committee.
Comey said the program was reauthorized the next day without a Justice Department signature, and he then prepared a letter of resignation. However, he said he did not hand that letter in because the Justice Department's chief of staff asked him to delay it until Ashcroft could also resign.

This was in March of 2004, Ashcroft resigned that November, and Comey followed suit in March of 2005.

Certainly a classy move by Gonzalez and Card, no?


PG said...

I missed the Godfather aspect of this story -- it reminded me instead of Gingrich asking his wife to sign the divorce papers while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

I wonder if someone might be able to tease out exactly what Ashcroft's legal philosophy is. In retrospect, his alleged proposal to suspend habeas after 9/11 at least has the benefit of honesty: instead of allowing the executive to argue that so-and-so doesn't qualify for habeas, or that habeas has been replaced by an equally good alternative through the use of the CSRT/ Military commission, the suspension of habeas would force Congress actually to confront the question: what are we ready to give up in order to deal with this threat?

(I still think suspending habeas would be terrible and find Ashcroft nuts for proposing it, but as I said, it has that honesty advantage over the Administration's choice of action.)

David Schraub said...

I saw the Gingrich connection too--couldn't see a way to work it into the post though.

Ashcroft reminds me alot of Sam Brownback--crazy theocon, but in the principled manner that sometimes means he'll do cool things. The principled part means he'll take those consistent but embarassing positions on the far right fringe of his party, but it also means he won't support an issue just to be a good hack and will stand up on some surprising issues.

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