April 16, 2003
THIS IS NOT AN ASHCROFT-BASHING POST: Well, not really. But I've been slowly making my way through Steven Brill's new book, After, and I ran across this passage the other day, about Ashcroft's role in the drafting of the USA Patriot Act:
Beyond his predilection to want to control as much as he could, some on his own staff thought that another reason Ashcroft hadn't "scrubbed" the bill beforehand was that he didn't appreciate the significance of the prosecutor-written laundry list he was proposing. Although Ashcroft is a graduate of the highly regarded University of Chicago Law School and a former Missouri state attorney general, even some of his own deputies at Justice were surprised by how uninterested he was in the niceties of the law. One veteran staffer recalls that through six different meetings on this bill and another key legal initiative, he had never once heard Ashcroft cite a legal case and had watched him blanch when someone in the room cited a case, as if that person was discourteously speaking another language. Two senators -- one a conservative Republican, the other a moderate Democrat -- who spoke with Ashcroft at about this time were surprised at his lack of command of the basic issues. Whether it was lack of interest or lack of intellectual firepower, the Attorney General seemed not to appreciat the complexities of the constitutional issues he was dealing with.
This is damning if it's accurate. (In the "source note" for this section, Brill attributes this to the two unnamed Senators and to a "veteran Justice Department senior lawyer" who is unnamed). It's possible, of course, that -- to be as charitable as possible -- Ashcroft was having trouble focusing on legal niceties at a time when more terror attacks seemed imminent. But it's not as if Ashcroft's manner has changed with more time for reflection.
I've defended Ashcroft when I thought he was right, but I really don't think he's the right guy for the job he has. I would feel more comfortable with someone who was more of a real lawyer, and who had more respect for civil liberties. It's not Ashcroft's religiosity that bothers me, as it bothers some. It's his penchant for secrecy, and for bureaucratic power-grabbing -- and the Justice Department and FBI's not very impressive performance, and extremely limited commitment to self-policing, demonstrated both before and after 9/11.
And it doesn't comfort me that Ashcroft is getting chummy on these issues with Charles Schumer, either.