John Ashcroft on Homeland Security

Former Attorney General; Former Republican Senator (MO)


Reverse Justice Department ruling on legality of torture

I agreed that the legal opinion about torture was just wrong. So I went to Attorney General Ashcroft and, in a private meeting, told him why I believed it made sense to take the dramatic step of withdrawing the Justice Department's earlier opinion on the legality of these actions. He agreed.

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leave CIA personal exposed, in a sense, because they had done rough stuff in reliance on a legal opinion that was now withdrawn.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.

Source: A Higher Loyalty, p.103, by James Comey , Apr 17, 2018

OpEd: refused to declare NSA domestic spying legal

[GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS] Q: The issue of warrantless wiretapping led to a now famous confrontation in the hospital room of attorney general John Ashcroft. You sped to that room. Why?

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.

Source: ABC-TV Q&A: Jim Comey on Higher Loyalty & impeaching Trump , Apr 15, 2018

Major purpose of PATRIOT Act: eliminate "The Wall" at CIA

Putting the country on a war footing required more than just tightening our physical defenses. We needed better legal, financial, and intelligence tools to find the terrorists and stop them before it was too late.

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

Source: Decision Points, by Pres. George W. Bush, p.160-161 , Nov 9, 2010

Introduced 5-color terror alert system in 2002

We introduced the Homeland Security Advisory System, later called the "terror alert system," in 2002. We settled on five levels represented by five colors: green (low risk), blue (general risk), yellow (significant risk), orange (high risk), & red (sever risk). In each case, specific measures were to be taken at airports and public facilities. But we couldn't agree on where we were, colorwise, on the day we introduced the system. Ashcroft campaigned to open with orange, arguing that we were under siege.
Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p. 99-100 , Sep 1, 2009

2003: Be on the lookout for "Azzam the American"

On Memorial Day 2003, there was nothing new to report. I noted the same level of intelligence traffic, but concluded there was nothing that would require us to raise the threat level.

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.

Source: The Test of our Times, by Tom Ridge, p.228-229 , Sep 1, 2009

Advocated Guantanamo tribunals to test the court system

The hundreds of suspected terrorists who were detainees at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were unlawful combatants who could be tried in military tribunals and denied access to the US federal court system. This meant that they had been turned over to the Defense Department, but Rumsfeld would not start the tribunal process.

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.

Source: State of Denial, by Bob Woodward, p.276 , Oct 1, 2006

Voted NO on adopting the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would ban nuclear weapons testing six months after ratification by the 44 nations that have nuclear power plants or nucelar research reactors.
Status: Resolution of Ratification Rejected Y)48; N)51; P)1
Reference: Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; Bill Treaty Document #105-28 ; vote number 1999-325 on Oct 13, 1999

Voted YES on allowing another round of military base closures.

Vote on an amendment to allow one round of military base closures beginning in 2001 as determined by an independent panel.
Reference: Bill S.1059 ; vote number 1999-147 on May 26, 1999

Voted YES on cutting nuclear weapons below START levels.

The Kerrey (D-NE) amdt would strike bill language requiring that U.S. strategic nuclear forces remain at START I levels through the end of fiscal 2000 unless Russia ratified START II.
Status: Motion to Table Agreed to Y)56; N)44
Reference: Motion to table Kerrey Amdt #395; Bill S. 1059 ; vote number 1999-149 on May 26, 1999

Voted YES on deploying National Missile Defense ASAP.

Vote that the policy of the US is to deploy a National Missile Defense system capable of defending against limited ballistic missile attack as soon as it is technologically possible, and to seek continued negotiated reductions in Russian nuclear forces.
Reference: Bill S 257 ; vote number 1999-51 on Mar 17, 1999

Voted YES on military pay raise of 4.8%.

Vote to pass a bill to authorize a military pay raise of 4.8% in 2000 and annual pay increases through 2006 of 0.5% above the inflation rate. The bill would also provide additional incentives to certain enlisted personnel who remain on active duty.
Reference: Bill S.4 ; vote number 1999-26 on Feb 24, 1999

Voted YES on prohibiting same-sex basic training.

Byrd Amdt (D-WV) that would prohibit same-sex military barracks and basic training.
Status: Amdt Rejected Y)39; N)53; NV)8
Reference: Byrd Amdt #3011; Bill S. 2057 ; vote number 1998-180 on Jun 25, 1998

Voted NO on favoring 36 vetoed military projects.

Overturning line-item vetoes of 36 military projects vetoed by President Clinton.
Status: Bill Passed Y)69; N)30; NV)1
Reference: Line Item Veto Cancellation bill; Bill S. 1292 ; vote number 1997-287 on Oct 30, 1997

Voted NO on banning chemical weapons.

Approval of the chemical weapons ban.
Status: Resolution of Ratification Agreed to Y)74; N)26
Reference: Resolution of ratification of the Chemical (Comprehensive) Weapons (Convention) Ban; Bill S. Res. 75 ; vote number 1997-51 on Apr 24, 1997

Voted YES on considering deploying NMD, and amending ABM Treaty.

Vote to consider establishing a policy requiring the deployment of a national missile defense system by the end of 2003. The bill would also urge discussions with Russia to amend the ABM Treaty to allow deployment of the system.
Reference: Bill S 1635 ; vote number 1996-157 on Jun 4, 1996

Voted YES on 1996 Defense Appropriations.

Approval of the 1996 Defense Appropriations bill.
Status: Bill Passed Y)62; N)35; NV)3
Reference: Defense Approps Bill FY 96; Bill S. 1087 ; vote number 1995-397 on Sep 5, 1995

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Page last updated: Oct 27, 2021