Many Bush administration critics and privacy advocates blame former Attorney General John Ashcroft for the erosion of personal freedom and loss of individual rights under the current President.
Yet while Ashcroft became the public face of Bush's assault on the Constitution, new revelations show he was privately critical of what he called the President's "overreaching" and thought the administration was out of control.
Write Peter Baker and Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post:
As attorney general, John D. Ashcroft was the public face of an administration pushing the boundaries of the Constitution to hunt down terrorists, but behind the scenes, according to former aides and White House officials, he at times resisted what he saw as radical overreaching.
Testimony last week that a hospitalized Ashcroft rebuffed aides to President Bush intent on gaining Ashcroft's approval of a surveillance program he had deemed illegal provided a rare view of the inner workings of the early Bush presidency and the depth of internal disagreement over how far to go in responding to the threat of terrorism after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
According to former officials, it was not the only time that the former Missouri senator chosen for the Bush Cabinet in part for his ties to the Christian right would challenge the White House in private. In addition to rejecting to the most expansive version of the warrantless eavesdropping program, the officials said, Ashcroft also opposed holding detainees indefinitely at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without some form of due process. He fought to guarantee some rights for those to be tried by newly created military commissions. And he insisted that Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, be prosecuted in a civilian court.
These internal disputes often put Ashcroft at odds with Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said the officials, who recalled heated exchanges in front of the president. In the end, the officials said, the conflicts contributed to Ashcroft's departure at the conclusion of Bush's first term, when the president replaced him with a close friend from Texas, Alberto R. Gonzales, who presumably would be more deferential to the White House.
None of this meant that Ashcroft was a closet liberal. He championed a broad expansion of government power to investigate possible terrorist cells through the USA Patriot Act, authorized the detention of hundreds without charges in the days after Sept. 11, pushed immigration agents to fully use their power to deport foreigners, secured new authority to peer into private records even in libraries, and oversaw legal interpretations that opened the door to harsh interrogation techniques that critics called torture.
"All of us wanted to err on the side of public safety after the attacks," said former deputy attorney general Larry D. Thompson. But even while taking an "aggressive stand" on the Patriot Act and other measures, "John was completely devoted to the Department of Justice and completely devoted to the Constitution," Thompson said.