As Attorney General John Ashcroft announces his resignation from President Bush’s cabinet, we speak with Georgetown Law School professor David Cole who says Ashcroft has shown a "willful blindness to any concerns about the basic principles that this country was founded upon." [includes rush transcript]
Attorney General John Ashcroft and Commerce Secretary Don Evans have both announced they are resigning from President Bush’s cabinet. Ashcroft was widely criticized by civil liberties group and seen as one of the most divisive members of the Bush administration.
He shepherded the USA Patriot Act through Congress. He oversaw the detention of thousands of Arabs and Muslims after Sept. 11. In December of 2001 he warned Senators that criticism of the government’s tactics "only aids terrorists." And he dismissed critics of the Patriot Act, as "hysterics."
Anthony Romero, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, yesterday said "His legacy will show that he was one of the worst attorney generals in American history, with an outright hostility for civil liberties and overt disdain for critics."
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said upon Ashcroft’s resignation "President Bush now has the opportunity to appoint a new Attorney General who will protect not only our safety, but our Constitutional rights as well."
Ashcroft was more upbeat in describing his accomplishments. In an internal farewell letter to Justice Department employees Ashcroft wrote that the past four years have "ushered in an extraordinary era of justice and security for the American people. We live today in an America that is safer and stronger than ever before; an America where freedom is not a promise but a birthright, not a dream but a reality."
In the letter Ashcroft goes on to quote from the Psalms and ends with a reference to God. He wrote, "I know that our efforts have not been in vain. The Builder of our city and the Author of our freedom has stood beside us. He stands beside us still."
Ashcroft said yesterday that he will continue to serve as Attorney General until his successor is confirmed.
- David Cole, professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book "Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by David Cole, professor at Georgetown Law School, author of the book Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism. Welcome to Democracy Now!
DAVID COLE: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about John Ashcroft’s resignation, what it means and his record?
DAVID COLE: Well, I think it’s safe to say that he’s even worse as an attorney general than he is as a singer. And that he has shown, you know, from day one, really, and even before day one, an absolute tin ear for the constitutional freedoms and principles that this country is based upon. He is someone who came into office without any record of concern for civil liberties and indeed quite a substantial record of racism and discrimination, and then after 9/11, sort of let everything loose, and engaged in wide — the most widespread campaign of ethnic profiling that this country has seen since World War II, rounded up thousands of foreign nationals that he called "terrorist suspects," but who ultimately turned out to have nothing to do with terrorism and not one of the more than 5,000 foreign nationals who were subjected to preventive detention in his anti-terrorism campaign was — has been convicted of a crime of terrorism. When the inspector general of the Justice Department did an internal review of the preventive detention campaign that was launched right after September 11, and ended up locking up all kinds of people without charges for long periods of time, without access to lawyers, and found that none of these people had been involved in terrorism, John Ashcroft’s response was, we make no apologies. So, he is somebody who has shown a willful blindness to any concerns about the basic principles that this country is founded upon.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the record in terms of the number of people who have been rounded up since September 11, mainly Arab Americans, Arabs, Muslims?
DAVID COLE: Well, you know, the record is that he is — his record stands at about 0 for 5,000. Based on official government numbers, they rounded up about 1200 in the first seven weeks after September 11. They have admitted subsequently to rounding up another approximately 4,000 others, and yet not one of these people stands convicted. At one point his record was 1 for 5,000, because one of these people was convicted of providing material support or conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist activity, an unnamed terrorist activity, in a case in Detroit, but in September, earlier this year in September, court in that case threw out the conviction when the prosecution admitted that it had failed to disclose to the defense evidence that its principle witness had lied on the stand. And that was his only conviction. So, you know, those are the, quote-unquote, terrorist suspects. Yet, to sort of accomplish that purpose, he kept people locked up without access to lawyers. He did everything he could to make them not be able to get in touch with lawyers. He — they adopted policies to delay hearings where they didn’t have any evidence that would justify holding the individuals, and he even after many people were charged with immigration violation, but even after the immigration cases were fully resolved, he kept them in detention for months and months, simply because he had not yet convinced himself that they were innocent, they were sort of presumed guilty and then proven innocent — until proven innocent. Ultimately, virtually all were proved innocent.
AMY GOODMAN: The last quote of Attorney General Ashcroft: "I know our efforts have not been in vain, the builder of our city and the author of our freedom has stood beside us. He stands beside us still." How have Attorney General John Ashcroft’s religious views affected his tenure?
DAVID COLE: I think that’s probably hard to separate the attorney general from his religious views. He is someone who when he came into office initially was holding Bible study meetings in his office first thing every morning, quote-unquote, "voluntary Bible study meetings," but still in the office of the attorney general. He’s not someone who sort of understands separation of church and state. I think he’s someone who seems to have viewed himself as some sort of a religious, you know, crusade, and has shown, you know very little concern — much concern for the religious beliefs of those with whom he shares their beliefs, but very little concern whatsoever for those who have different beliefs, in particular, Muslims in this society. I think he’s — you know, he has single-handedly done more to alienate the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States than any other official in the Bush administration. And it’s not — that alienation is not limited just to the Arab and Muslim communities here, who have been the targets of his kind of zero-tolerance policies, but those — the stories of the abuses, the stories of people being unfairly targeted and the like, especially when they’re foreign nationals have huge resonance and huge play in the foreign media, and so they contribute to the alienation that we see around the world, the anti-Americanism that we see around the world, and especially in Arab and Muslim countries and in my mind, to my mind, it’s that anti-Americanism that he has done so much to create since September 11 that poses the greatest threat to our national security as we go forward. So, I think — you know, I don’t think he can actually point to very much in terms of concrete results in making us safer, but we can clearly point to a direct link between the kind of overreactions that he has spawned, the insensitivity that he showed, and the anti-American resentment that you see in so many parts of the world today, which is only helping the terrorists’ cause.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, some of the people who are being talked about as possible replacements — Larry Thompson, who would be the first African American attorney general, the White House counsel Gonzales, would be the first Latino attorney general, Rudy Giuliani. Can you comment on some of these people?
DAVID COLE: Well, Larry Thompson, we probably know the least about. He’s not someone who makes a lot of public, you know, splashy public statements. John Ashcroft beat him to the podium every time there was a news conference to be held about an indictment about another quote-unquote, terrorist suspect. We don’t have much sense except that he was John Ashcroft’s deputy during the most abusive period of this attorney general, and we have seen no sign whatsoever that he stood up to or opposed any of the measures that John Ashcroft put into place. Alberto Gonzalez, White House counsel, we now know from very good behind the scenes reporting by The New York Times, that he was one of the lead people in urging that the — foreign nationals being held on Guantanamo Bay not be given POW status, he argued that the Geneva Conventions were quaint in today’s world, that they would interfere with interrogation tactics. You know, like those tactics that we saw at Abu Ghraib in the long run. And that he was one of the real hard-liners in the internal debates about how much rights should be extended to people who are tried in military tribunals. So, I think that he would be a disaster. And Rudy Giuliani, I mean — Rudy Giuliani got lots of good press because, you know, he was — he reacted well to the tragedy of September 11 in New York, but you have to think back to his period of time as the mayor of New York where he essentially launched this campaign of zero-tolerance racial profiling within the city, in which virtually every young black man was pulled over, stopped, frisked and the like in the hope of finding drugs or finding weapons. And so, I would not be — I would not rest easy with any of those replacements.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, do you think John Ashcroft was pushed out? There’s a quote embedded in a Washington Post piece that says, "a long-time friend of Ashcroft’s expressed bitterness had that the White House had originally welcomed him as a lightning rod to draw criticism away from Bush then decided not to stand by him." The friend said, "He was something to offer to evangelicals. They used him and now they’re done with him and they’re tossing him aside?"
DAVID COLE: I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I mean, he certainly was a lightning rod for criticism. I mean, you know, the civil libertarians won’t have John Ashcroft to kick around anymore, but I — it’s really — it’s always been hard to assess whether he served their purposes by taking away the focus of criticism from president Bush or whether he undermined their purposes by incurring the wrath of so many people because of his — you know, utter insensitivity and blunderbuss attitude, and, you know, I don’t know how the people in the Bush administration make that call.
AMY GOODMAN: David Cole, thank you very much for joining us.
DAVID COLE: You’re welcome.
AMY GOODMAN: David Cole is a constitutional lawyer and is also author of the book, Enemy Aliens. This is Democracy Now!