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The Unaccountable Attorney General
Al Hunt
Wall Street Journal
June 6, 2002

One reason, the FBI explains, that it didn't respond last summer to an agent's warnings about suspicious activities at flight schools by Middle Eastern men was a lack of resources. Yet there were enough FBI agents to eavesdrop on New Orleans hookers and their clients.

That certainly reflected Attorney General John Ashcroft's priorities. This was an attorney general selected as a cultural warrior.

Remarkably, as the Sept. 11 debate, and the delicious dueling leaks, focuses on FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Chief George Tenet, there has been little criticism of Mr. Ashcroft. Yet on that tragic day, Mr. Mueller had been in office seven days, his boss, the attorney general, had served more than seven months. George Tenet spent that summer warning about the terrorism threat; the attorney general considered counterterrorism a low priority.

Hindsight always is easy. There is plenty of culpability for failing to anticipate Sept. 11, and even if mistakes weren't made, the tragedy might have occurred anyway. But as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, John Ashcroft's pre-Sept. 11 agenda was fighting gun control, abortion, state laws permitting assisted suicide or medical marijuana and going after hookers and their clients, not terrorism.

An attorney general sets a tone; there are many more crimes than crime-catchers in America so priorities are important. Under Robert F. Kennedy, ambitious U.S. attorneys general or FBI agents zeroed in on organized crime. Under Janet Reno, prosecutions for Medicare and Medicaid fraud, a cause of hers, soared.

There is no reason to think Mr. Ashcroft ordered federal agents in New Orleans to spends hundreds and hundreds of hours watching and wiretapping brothels. But his underlings clearly knew that proving that sin and sex were pervasive wouldn't displease the boss. The endless drudgery of monitoring flight schools was not the path to advancement in the Ashcroft criminal justice system.

What makes this more galling was the willingness of the Bush camp to blame the Clinton administration for the failure of American counterterrorism; documents show that Ms. Reno, whatever her failings, was far more committed to fighting terrorism than Mr. Ashcroft. The attorney general's effort to rewrite history, painting himself as an anti-terrorist warrior from the get-go is simply duplicitous.

The Clinton administration was late coming to the terrorism threat. But by the second term it mattered. The only two top officials retained by George W. Bush a year and a half ago were CIA Director Tenet and Richard Clarke, the terrorism expert at the National Security Council.

The Justice Department sought huge budget increases and Attorney General Reno stressed the fight against terrorism. There were excesses, such as the establishment of an alien terrorist removal court, to secretly evict suspected terrorists, but it appears not to have been used.

In a May 1998 strategic directive, Ms. Reno listed her only "tier one" priority as combating "terrorist and criminal activities that directly threaten national or economic security." In her memorandum to budget heads for the 2002 budget, her final one, counter terrorism and cyber crime were accorded the top priority.

By contrast, Mr. Ashcroft cut back on the counter-terrorism emphasis. In his directive to budget heads for the 2003 budget, he too laid out priorities, over a dozen; none pertained to anti-terrorism.

Although last summer the FBI complained that it lacked sufficient resources in the war against terrorism, the attorney general rejected the bureau's request for $57.8 million for more counter-terrorism agents, intelligence researchers and language translators. In a letter to Budget Chief Daniels Sept. 10, the attorney general outlined his initial requests for more funds. There are no add-ons for counter-terrorism, but there is a reduction in grants to state and local governments for anti-terrorism.

Yet, asked last weekend on television about these reports, Mr. Ashcroft, who sometimes confuses disagreement with disloyalty, claimed the charge "significantly misrepresents" the facts. The $57.8 million rejection only was in the give-and-take of preliminary deliberations; the actual budget involved a "massive increase in the anti-terrorism budget."

That is a flat-out misrepresentation. The give-and-take process inside the department had already transpired and the boss turned down requests for more counter-terrorism resources. When an agency head goes to the budget director, that's the high-water mark; requests then often are pared back, not increased.

Sure, there was a "massive increase" in the counter-terrorism budget -- after Sept. 11. But the Ashcroft rhetoric has been more forceful than the results. Since Sept. 11 the attorney general has thrown some 2,000 supposedly suspicious Middle Eastern men in prison, some for months, but has not indicted even a single one on a terrorist charge. Withholding information and secrecy are a way of life with the attorney general.

So is arrogance. Last week when he decided to let FBI agents roam around mosques and churches, without any "reasonable indication" of a crime -- overturning a more than quarter-century-old guideline promulgated by former president Jerry Ford and his attorney general Edward Levi -- he gave congressional leaders only two hours notice. That infuriated lawmakers like Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, whose anti-government conservative instincts were offended by the substance of the change.

Tough, Ashcroft defenders reply; the attorney general is popular with the president -- one GOP activist calls him the "conservative heartthrob" of the Bush administration -- and with the public. To hell with the carping critics in Congress and the press.

This tactic may work as it did months ago when he charged critics with "giving ammunition" to America's enemies and "aiding terrorists." But it's easy to see why John Ashcroft resorts to such tactics; a full examination of his performance, before and after Sept. 11, would give lots of ammunition to his critics.