Ashcroft Defends Actions On Torture Memos

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft says he approved legal memos that narrowly defined torture. He also tells a House panel he approved a memo that withdrew the earlier ones because the legal reasoning behind them was flawed and needed to be corrected.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft testified under oath today for the first time since he left office. He was questioned on Capitol Hill about harsh interrogations, domestic spying and politicized hiring at the Justice Department.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story.

ARI SHAPIRO: There are two sides to John Ashcroft. The public Ashcroft, who has passionately defended Bush administration national security policies, was on full display this morning.

Mr. JOHN ASHCROFT (Former U.S. Attorney General): Waterboarding as described in the CIA's request is not torture.

SHAPIRO: Ashcroft said he approved legal memos that narrowly defined torture, and he approved a memo that withdrew those earlier ones. He said he stands by both of those decisions.

Mr. ASHCROFT: This remedial process worked as it should have. When concerns were raised about the department's work, I directed the professionals at the department to reexamine the work and to make any warranted adjustments.

SHAPIRO: That's the public Ashcroft. The private one apparently resisted some Bush administration counterterrorism policies.

Florida Democrat Bob Wexler asked about reports that Ashcroft was uncomfortable with White House discussions of harsh interrogations. Ashcroft has been quoted as saying history will not treat us kindly.

Mr. ASHCROFT: I'm appalled that so much seems to be available from classified settings. This town leaks like a sieve. I think the easiest job in the world would be to be a spy against America.

Representative BOB WEXLER (Democrat, Florida): Well, yeah, I'm appalled too.

SHAPIRO: Ashcroft said discussing those meetings would be against the law, and Congressman Wexler responded.

Rep. WEXLER: Apparently, Mr. Attorney General, you were specifically uncomfortable with what the principals at that meeting were doing or were being asked to do - to your credit.

Mr. ASHCROFT: Do you think I would want to break the law if I thought it was to my credit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. WEXLER: No.

Mr. ASHCROFT: Well, then I'm not going to answer.

SHAPIRO: This was the theme of the day. When members of Congress encouraged Ashcroft to defend the Bush administration, he did so vigorously. But when, for example, Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of California asked whether it's true that the White House pushed Ashcroft out, this was the former attorney general's response. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Democratic Congresswoman LINDA Sanchez of California]

Mr. ASHCROFT: Communications between me and those responsible for my opportunity to serve America as attorney general are the subject of privilege and I won't make comments about them.

SHAPIRO: A recent inspector general report said that under Ashcroft's tenure, political leaders broke the rules by screening career job applicants for their political affiliation. Ashcroft told Sanchez he has no recollection of being aware of that.

Mr. ASHCROFT: I don't know whether it's ever been mentioned to me. I...

Representative LINDA SANCHEZ (Democrat, California): Have you read the I.G. report?

Mr. ASHCROFT: No, I have not.

Rep. SANCHEZ: I highly suggest that you do. It might be a very eye-opening experience for you.

SHAPIRO: One of the most dramatic incidents in Ashcroft's tenure involved the president's domestic spying program. In 2004, Ashcroft was in the hospital when two White House officials, counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andy Card, asked Ashcroft to overrule his deputy and reauthorize the surveillance.

Today, Ashcroft refused to recount that story, but he said he thought things went exactly as they should.

Mr. ASHCROFT: You have a situation where there's people who have differing legal opinions, and eventually somebody has to decide whether they're going to side with the legal professionals or the - or others. And the president comes down on the side of the Department of Justice, according to all the accounts. What's wrong with that picture? Eventually you get to the right decision being made.

SHAPIRO: After that decision, the man who was overruled, Alberto Gonzales, replaced Ashcroft as attorney general.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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