Ashcroft offensive

April 16, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Attorney General John Ashcroft, fresh from successful surgery on his innards, wasted no time in his appearance before the 9/11 commission demonstrating that his instinct for the jugular remains securely in place.

Faced with a staff report indicating that the FBI under his jurisdiction was in disarray at the time of the terrorist attacks, and testimony by Thomas J. Pickard, former acting director of the FBI, that his boss had turned a deaf ear to the threat, Mr. Ashcroft boldly went into attack mode himself.

After denying the charges, he first blamed the Clinton administration, observing that "we did not know an attack was coming because for nearly a decade our government had blinded itself to its enemies."

Then Mr. Ashcroft pointedly turned on one commission member, Clinton administration Deputy Attorney General Jamie S. Gorelick, by announcing that he had just declassified a memo she wrote in 1995. He said it showed her to have been the architect of a "wall that segregated or separated criminal investigators and intelligence agents" within the FBI that was "the single greatest structural cause for the Sept. 11 problem."

The commission had heard much other testimony citing the "wall" as the major structural culprit. Mr. Ashcroft, operating as always on the principle that the best defense is a good offense, piled on with a particularly smarmy tactic.

"Although you understand the debilitating impact of the wall," he told the 9/11 panel, "I cannot imagine that the commission knew about this memorandum, so I have declassified it for you and the public to review. Full disclosure compels me to inform you that its author is a member of this commission."

Without identifying Ms. Gorelick by name, he observed unctuously that he was aware that declassifying her memo involved "at times painful introspection for this commission and for the nation."

"I have spoken out today not to add to the nation's considerable stock of pain, but to heal our wounds," he said. "This commission's heavy burden to probe the causes of Sept. 11 demands that the record be complete."

Ms. Gorelick, who had said she would recuse herself from questioning any witness about work in which she was involved at the Justice Department, did not respond. But Mr. Ashcroft's gratuitous rationale for his transparently self-serving action did not sit well with other commission members.

The Republican chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, said later that the commission didn't "want to get in a fight with the attorney general, and I hope he doesn't want to get in a fight with us," but "people ought to stay out of our business."

Except for clearly partisan questions by both Democrats and Republicans during the testimonies of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and former counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke, the commission has pretty much behaved in a nonpartisan manner.

But Mr. Ashcroft's declassification of Ms. Gorelick's 1995 memo inspired the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, to call on Ms. Gorelick to resign from the commission, charging "an inherent conflict of interest." She declined and was immediately supported by fellow commissioners of both parties.

Thumbing his nose at critics has long been an Ashcroft trademark. During his confirmation hearings in 2001, he conspicuously groveled before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But later that year, when he went before the same panel as attorney general on his proposals for detaining, interrogating and trying possible terrorist suspects and material witnesses, he implied that any critics were aiding and abetting the enemy.

"We need honest, reasoning debate and not fearmongering," he lectured the committee. "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve."

More than two years later, before a basically nonpartisan commission, Mr. Ashcroft remained cocky and defiant, free of the slightest contrition in the face of charges of pre-9/11 indifference to the terrorist threat.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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