Exit Ashcroft, Enter Gonzales

“Mr. Ashcroft's legacy has been an open hostility to protecting civil liberties and an outright disdain for those who dare to question his policies. We need to do more than just replace John Ashcroft; we need a wholesale re-examination of Justice Department policies that trample on civil liberties and human rights." - Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The underlying cause of crime in America is criminals." John Ashcroft

Now that John Ashcroft is packing it in and heading back to Missouri, will the drapes be coming off the bare-breasted statuary in the halls of Justice? Perhaps they could be converted into sackcloth for the many Muslims he callously tossed in jail with no legal recourse. Or maybe they could be sewn into blinders for the next staff at the DOJ? With Bush at the tiller, its doubtful that the next team will veer too far from the course set by the current attorney general.

Ashcroft's tenure at Justice ended with a fizzle. After fashioning the 350 pages of the notorious Patriot Act (which effectively eviscerates the 4th amendment), he devoted himself to the various chores of harassing terminally ill patients protected under Oregon state law (trying to end their lives in dignity), disrupting the sale of medical marijuana to cancer patients, and ferreting through the medical records of women who had legal abortions. No effort was ever spared to ensure that his narrow view of personal morality was rigorously applied like a tourniquet. But these are just minor details in the broader Ashcroft legacy. The real meat-and-potatoes of his four-year tenure was his Klansman-like zeal in rounding-up and persecuting innocent Muslims – 5,000, give or take a few. It was a task for which the autocratic general was particularly well suited. As proficient as Ashcroft was in detaining terror suspects on any imaginable pretext (his favorites were material witness, immigration violations or, the favorite, no charges at all) he was much less adept at getting convictions. As David Cole of the Nation magazine points out, of the 5,000 suspects Ashcroft arrested not one has been convicted of terrorism. The only conviction obtained was thrown out by a federal judge in Detroit. The rest were settled through plea agreements – deals that were struck through coercion and threats of being sent to Guantanamo if defendants refused to cooperate. The presumption of innocence was as breezily discarded as was most of the Bill of Rights. The result is an unblemished record of failure that will be filed in the national archive as the biggest flop in American history.

Its hard to know what to make of Ashcroft, a man who thinks God entrusted him with His terrible swift sword to dispatch the infidels. His religious convictions never included defending the meek or the poor in heart. They may be swept upwards to the kingdom of heaven, but they could always count on short-shrift from the A.G. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports: Like Bush, Ashcroft stuck to conservative positions on a wide range of issues. He sought to limit judges' flexibility to reduce criminal sentences, to have the federal death penalty applied more uniformly nationwide and targeted Internet pornography for high-profile crackdowns. In other words, punishment was the Ashcroft panacea for all ailments. Suspects could always count on a touch of the lash whether guilty or not. There was no sparing the rod in the Ashcroft regime. Under his leadership the concept of justice was put through the juicer and replaced with his favorite substitute: incarceration. As a result, respect for the office has withered considerably. Ashcroft's contempt of legal precedent may impress his friends at the Federalist Society, but its done little to elevate his standing with the American public.

Ashcroft's career has not been without its low points. Who can forget his spectral appearance in front of Congress following 9/11 when he said, "Those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to Americas enemies and pause to Americas friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil." His bleak demagoguery mixed with his bizarre habits of early morning prayer meetings and religious sing-a-longs, put Ashcroft in a category well outside the mainstream. He became a political liability for the image conscious administration and, ultimately, had to be dumped. Fanaticism is revered at the Bush White House, but only if it is concealed behind a businesslike demeanor. Ashcroft had to go. Will anyone remember how Ashcroft stonewalled the Congress in their investigation of 9/11 (he still hasn't provided the documents they required) or stubbornly refused to produce the memos that authorized the abuse at Abu Ghraib?

Apparently, his astute sense of morality doesnt involve illuminating the details of the deaths of 3,000 Americans or of assisting the victims of torture. His political attachments far transcend his commitment to common decency.

And, what have the effects of John Ashcroft been on the institution of attorney general? Do people really believe in American justice anymore? It's hard to know. The DOJ has run roughshod over most of the principles that are fundamental to our system. The behavior of the A.G. has been so erratic that no one can be entirely certain whether they're even entitled to an attorney anymore. It's been an astonishing turnaround. The DOJ spends half its time enforcing the American version of Sharia Law, and the other half sharpening its talons for political enemies. There's little time for justice in the classic sense of the word. We'd be better off boarding up the Justice Department and slapping up a few more high security prisons in its place. That seems to be the idea anyway. There is a downside, however, to Ashcroft's anticipated departure. His likely replacement is the current White House Consigliore, Alberto Gonzales. Gonzales has been a strident advocate of the Guantanamo mock trials (despite international condemnation) and a vociferous promoter of the unlimited detention of terror suspects without charges. He is most widely known for his role in the Abu Ghraib scandal, where he applied his lawyerly skills to fashion the arguments that were invoked to justify the massive abuse of Iraqi prisoners. It was Gonzales muddled logic that suggested we had entered a new paradigm that renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." This memo, in fact, provided the rationale for using torture against America's (perceived) enemies. It is a document that should have cost Gonzales his job as well as had him disbarred. Instead, it bumped him up the political food chain to top dog at the DOJ. That's how it works in the Bush White House; audacity is rewarded. As far as Ashcroft is concerned, the only ones who will be missing him will be al Qaeda. His blundering incompetence made sure that not one terrorist was ever successfully locked up. As for the rest of us its, Ciao, John, don't let the door hit you on the way out.



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