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Meet John Ashcroft, The Anti-mcclellan

Very strange testimony yesterday from John Ashcroft before the House Judiciary Committee. According to various reports that have come out since his departure from the Justice Department, Ashcroft was decidedly uncomfortable with--and flat-out opposed to--some of the more dubious aspects of the Bush administration's war on terror.

For instance, during a 2002 White House meeting to discuss harsh interrogation practices of terror suspects, ABC News has reported:

Then-Attorney General Ashcroft was troubled by the discussions. He agreed with the general policy decision to allow aggressive tactics and had repeatedly advised that they were legal. But he argued that senior White House advisers should not be involved in the grim details of interrogations, sources said.

According to a top official, Ashcroft asked aloud after one meeting: "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."

And then there was Ashcroft's famous fight with Andy Card and Alberto Gonzales over the legality of the White House's warrantless wiretapping program, leading to this showdown in 2004 in a hospital room, where he was recovering from surgery:

Card and Gonzales arrived a few minutes later, with Gonzales holding an envelope that contained the executive order for the program. Comey said that, after listening to their entreaties, Ashcroft rebuffed the White House aides.

"He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me," Comey said. Then, he said, Ashcroft added: "But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general. There is the attorney general," and pointed at Comey, who was appointed acting attorney general when Ashcroft fell ill.

It's probably an overstatement to call Ashcroft a hero, but he was a notable high-ranking voice of at least occasional dissent in the Bush administration. And yet, in yesterday's testimony before the House Judiciary Committe, he lined up firmly behind the administration. From the AP:

Republicans on the panel argued that waterboarding and other harsh tactics yielded information that may have saved lives, and Ashcroft did not disagree. He also said he does not believe waterboarding or any of the methods allowed under the memos amounted to torture. Both the CIA and the Pentagon two years ago banned its interrogators from waterboarding suspects.


On the topic of the now-infamous March 2004 hospital visit, Ashcroft demurred from giving many details about the encounter at his bedside that pitted then-White House chief of staff Andy Card and counsel Alberto Gonzales against then-Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Ashcroft said he was "grouchy," hadn't eaten in several days and doctors had been "poking needles into me all the time" when Card and Gonzales asked him to approve a classified national security program against the advice of Comey and Mueller. Mueller has said the clash was about the government's warrantless wiretapping; Gonzales and the White House denied that and said it was about other intelligence activities.

Ashcroft sided with Comey and Mueller, and, ultimately, President Bush agreed to change some aspects of the program to satisfy their concerns.

Of the encounter, Ashcroft would only say this: "You had a situation where there's people who have differing legal opinions. And eventually somebody has to decide. And the president comes down on the side of the Department of Justice. What's wrong with that picture? ... Eventually you get to the right decision being made. That's something I would expect a free society to do, involve vigorous debate.

"You know, I'm just right now, next to standing up and singing the national anthem," Ashcroft said. "I think that's the way the system ought to work."

I'm not sure what explains Ashcroft's actions. Maybe there are financial incentives: While McClellan--who, unlike Ashcroft, didn't voice of any his doubts while he was actually in government--was able to cash in on those doubts by putting them into a tell-all memoir, Ashcroft has been able to cash in on his government service through a lucrative consulting contract; maybe he worries that if he gets on the Bushies' bad side, he can kiss that sort of work goodbye.

Or maybe Ashcroft just believes in loyalty. When he was asked during his testimony about his "history will not judge this kindly comment, the New York Times reports:

Mr. Ashcroft declined to confirm or deny whether he had said such a thing, noting that such discussions would have been classified. “This town leaks like a sieve,” he said. “I think the easiest job in the world would be to be a spy against America.”

Either way, a strange performance.

--Jason Zengerle