Ashcroft Reflects on War on Terrorism
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
John Ashcroft, the former U.S. attorney general, has written a book about his time heading the Justice Department. It's titled Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice. Ashcroft led the Justice Department during President Bush's first term. He resigned in 2004. John Ashcroft joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JOHN ASHCROFT (Former Attorney General): Delighted to be with you.
BLOCK: The title of your book comes from a meeting that you had with President Bush along with other high-level officials the day after 9/11. Why don't you describe what happened.
Mr. ASHCROFT: Well, it was a rather small meeting, but the president, feeling the weight of the circumstance, certainly - I believe everyone in the room turned and looked in my direction and said don't ever let this happen again. And that became a re-focusing event for me. Most of the Justice Department activity, historically, has been in prosecution, which is looking backward.
And the mandate of the president at that moment seemed to be ultimately reasonable, that we could no longer just afford, with the risks of the scope of the tragedy we had just endured, to look just backward. We had to look forward toward prevention and not just look backward toward prosecution.
BLOCK: You write that from that moment forward, you devoted yourself, you say, to an intense, sometimes secret war with a mission many people thought was impossible, stopping terrorists from attacking again on American soil. Now one part of that secret war has been revealed, one among other parts, the NSA's domestic surveillance program, warrantless surveillance. That's a program that, as attorney general, you would have had to authorize, right?
Mr. ASHCROFT: That's a program which I believe is within the rights and responsibilities and duties of the president. Frankly, in World War I, Woodrow Wilson surveilled all calls in and out of the United States. In World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on December 8, started surveilling all communications in and out of the U.S.
So this is something that is done whenever the U.S. is threatened significantly, and of course the threat of 9/11 or the damage, the injury, far exceeded any kind of injury on American soil in those conflicts.
BLOCK: It has been reported, though, that there was a rift within the Justice Department that came at a point when you were in the hospital. You had a serious pancreatic condition, and your number two man at Justice, James Comey, refused to re authorize the warrantless surveillance program, and according to the reports, the then White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, came to your hospital bed and asked you to override James Comey. What happened at that meeting?
Mr. ASHCROFT: Well, there are a lot of reports about the way things have been done, the way programs have been operated. I'm not going to comment on them. I think that there is a necessity when you're fighting a group of terrorists to make sure that you do everything within your power, make tough decisions.
BLOCK: Well, let me press you just one step further.
Mr. ASHCROFT: Sure.
BLOCK: According to the reports, you backed up your deputy, you bucked the White House and didn't override James Comey's decision not to reauthorize that program. Is that reporting accurate?
Mr. ASHCROFT: Let me just say this, that I believe the system works in order to provide safeguards not just for the rights of citizens, but for their personal security and safety, and I'm grateful to have had an opportunity to work in that respect myself, even when I was pretty darn sick.
I was 10 days in intensive care, but they did a good job of fixing me up. I'm almost as mean as I ever was - almost. I don't think they got a total mean-ectomy done.
BLOCK: I'm going to ask you one other question about the warrantless surveillance program. The Justice Department began investigating it through the Office of Professional Responsibility, and the president blocked that office from doing so. The chief lawyer of the Office of Professional Responsibility says that's the first time that the office has ever been prevented from pursuing an investigation in 31 years. Do you think it was right that that investigation was blocked?
Mr. ASHCROFT: I'm not going to comment on that. The president of the United States has a very substantial responsibility to defend America when it's attacked, and I believe this president has done a good job. As a matter of fact, I think it's arguable that this president has done more to respect the rights and civil liberties in wartime than any other wartime president -whether you start with Lincoln, who suspended the writ of habeas corpus and jailed people that were involved in newspaper reporting, or you go to Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who not only surveilled conversation but interned well over 100,000 ethnic Japanese, a third of whom were citizens of the United States, or you just look at the Clinton administration, where the deputy attorney general of the United States testified that the president for national security purposes, would have the right to search the homes of citizens without a warrant - I think when you put that frame or context of understanding and conduct that has been undertaken by other presidents around the activities of George W. Bush, I think it makes you kind of grateful that we have a president who cares as much about individual liberty and freedom, even in a time of significant attack.
BLOCK: The question, though, of course is how expansive those presidential powers should be, and there's been a lot of debate over whether this executive has gone too far, has overreached its bounds.
Mr. ASHCROFT: Oh there is and there should be debate. I think that's the important part about the United States. I think it's never wrong for people to talk about liberty and freedom. And the ability to talk about it clearly and openly and question authority - that's part and parcel of what the United States is.
BLOCK: In reading your book, it seems that you have an absolute conviction in the things that you did during your time as attorney general. I wonder if there are any things that you do have second thoughts about or misgivings about in terms of the way they've been carried out.
Mr. ASHCROFT: Well, I'll tell you what. If I could do things over again, I would do a better job of selling the Patriot Act. I didn't explain it well to the American people. When it was finally re-enacted, it got 88 votes in the United States Senate, but to listen to the debate over the three or four years when it was being discussed, you'd have thought it was a very, very contentious, very difficult issue. Such a valuable tool and yet became such a divisive thing - that's probably the biggest failure that I know of in my time as attorney general. And I'm sure I'll never have a chance to do it again. I don't want another chance to do it again. But if I've got reservations, that's one of them.
BLOCK: John Ashcroft, thanks very much.
Mr. ASHCROFT: My pleasure.
BLOCK: That's former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. His new book is titled Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.