November 3, 2006 | The New York Sun

Reflections of an Attorney General

The United States Department of Justice is like a battleship of enormous size and storied traditions, patrolling familiar seas under time-honored rules of engagement. Modern Islamic radicalism, and, in particular, the epoch-shattering barbarities of September 11, 2001, proved that the seas had drastically changed. The gargantuan vessel was compelled to turn on a dime and adapt to a new world order – one in which intelligence and prevention suddenly took precedence over investigation and prosecution.

The man who steered that still-evolving metamorphosis was Attorney General John Ashcroft. “Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice” (Center Street, 304 pages, $24.99) is his engaging memoir of the most tempestuous four years in the Department's history, the first term of the present Bush administration. It is a recounting of how and why it has proved so difficult for a proud institution to alter the fundamental premises of its enforcement philosophy. It is, moreover, the personal story of a decent man often vilified for putting the protection of American lives ahead of political correctness, privacy paranoia, and the crass politicization of our national security.

That Mr. Ashcroft was available to become Attorney General at all is testimony to his public-spiritedness. In autumn 2000, he seemed headed toward victory in a tough re-election campaign for his Senate seat when his opponent, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, was tragically killed in a plane crash. A shaken Mr. Ashcroft directed his campaign to desist its political operations in deference to mourning citizens and the Carnahan family, only to see Democrats seize on the swell of sympathy. At their urging, Missourians narrowly “elected” the dead man (correctly anticipating that Mr. Carnahan's widow would be selected to serve). Despite the strong legal case to be made against the result, Mr. Ashcroft opted to honor Missouri's choice — earning plaudits even as Al Gore dragged the nation through weeks of hanging-chad anxiety by pursuing the presidency in the courts.

As Mr. Ashcroft pondered the apparent end of his political career, the call came from President-elect George W. Bush, asking him to become the 79th U.S. Attorney General. In saner times, confirmation would have been a shoe-in: An accomplished lawyer who had been both Governor and Attorney General of Missouri, Mr. Ashcroft had served for years in the very body — the Senate Judiciary Committee — which was to vet his nomination. But times had changed. The Bush/Gore fallout, on the heels of the Clinton impeachment, had poisoned Washington and quickly quashed the estimable Linda Chavez's nomination to be Labor Secretary. Mr. Ashcroft was, as he puts it, a “marked man” for leftist interest groups who claimed that a conservative of strong Christian faith would fail to enforce laws protecting core freedoms (translation: abortion rights). Nonetheless, the nominee navigated the process as the old-Senate hand he was, reaching out to the opposition and garnering needed support.

With confirmation came immediate turmoil. On his first day on the job, the new AG learned that the FBI had been penetrated — for years — by a mole. Agent Robert Hanssen had betrayed America's most sensitive secrets to the Russians. The disturbing revelations proved to be just the tip of the iceberg: Mr. Ashcroft soon learned the nation's premier law enforcement agency was in a state of arrested development, saddled with antiquated information systems and self-defeating protocols for intelligence-sharing.

The devastation of 9/11, though hardly caused by those problems, is inseparable from them. Mr. Ashcroft rehearses the now-familiar blunders that resulted in missed opportunities to thwart the attacks, including the FBI's decisions not to allow its criminal division to assist the intelligence division in the hunt for two of the eventual 9/11 hijackers, and not to seek a pre-9/11 search warrant for the computer of detained plotter Zacharias Moussaoui. This sets the stage for what clearly is the most significant aspect of his book: the wall.

This wall was the communication-barrier between the criminal and intelligence divisions which Justice imposed on itself (with no small help from the courts) and which, as Mr. Ashcroft recounts, was raised to unprecedented and legally unnecessary heights in 1995, under the direction of Clinton Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. Highly experienced prosecutors prophetically warned that this structural impediment to efficient intelligence gathering imperiled the nation, pleas that fell on deaf ears in the run-up to 9/11.

Yet, when the high-profile (and often theatrically politicized) 9/11 Commission was convened to probe the causes of intelligence failure, Ms. Gorelick, a central participant in pertinent events, was somehow chosen to be one of the commissioners conducting the investigation. Mr. Ashcroft describes the fireworks that accompanied his testimony, including the dramatic moment when he revealed Ms. Gorelick's previously classified 1995 memorandum, which had been the building block for the prohibitive wall regulations. Further, he notes that — no doubt owing to Ms. Gorelick's patent conflict of interest — the wall, which should have been the Commission's centerpiece, was barely mentioned in its epiclength final report.

The former Attorney General vigorously defends the stormy highlights of his tenure. The “spit on the street” philosophy of pursuing terror suspects — using any legally valid means, including the immigration laws, to neutralize them, especially in the absence of intelligence that could be safely used in court — was constitutional, highly effective, and comparatively mild in America's history of wartime precautions. The much-maligned Patriot Act, which knocked down the wall and gave national security agents investigative tools long available to police investigating ordinary crimes, has also contributed mightily to keeping the homeland free of terror strikes for five years. And in a timely chapter, Mr. Ashcroft convincingly justifies the prosecution of self-styled civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart. The long trial and appeal of the infamous “blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman, were long over when Ms. Stewart illegally helped him communicate from prison with his vicious Egyptian terror organization. She was not a lawyer representing an accused; she was a conspirator abetting serious crimes.

Those seeking a gossipy Washington tell-all will be disappointed in this memoir. It is geared to sober consideration of serious matters. Typical of Mr. Ashcroft, its tone is civil and respectful. Moreover, it omits some matters on which the author's take would have been welcome — like the decision to try Mr. Moussaoui in the civilian justice system, rather than by military commission; the botched terrorism prosecution in Detroit (which Mr. Ashcroft's own Department exposed; asking the court to undo the convictions); and the Attorney General's reaction when a White House spokesman criticized his declassification of Clinton era Department of Justice memoranda about the wall. All in all, though, Mr. Ashcroft has made a significant contribution to the public understanding of a turbulent time, and, in the process, done his own legacy credit.

Mr. McCarthy, who heads the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was a federal prosecutor in New York.