I owe you an apology big man. Your former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's testimony yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee convinced me that I may not have given you a fair shake as Attorney General. I used to think of you as a narrow-sighted rubber stamp who was too tightly-wound and carried a rather prickly demeanor. I'm here to say I was mistaken. Now don't get me wrong, I'm still not a fan of your politics. The original Patriot Act had some pretty troubling issues and your proposed Patriot Act II seemed like one hefty push toward a police state. Plus, you have to admit, draping a curtain in front of the Spirit of Liberty in the Justice Department was just a little weird, and, the fact that you lost to a dead guy in the 2000 Senate election and were subsequently confirmed as Attorney General three months later by a meager 58-42 vote in the very Senate you just left suggests that neither your former constituency nor your former colleagues were really itching to have you back.
But James Comey's riveting testimony (you can watch it here) does speak volumes about your integrity and your respect for the law. I'll admit to being surprised, but it was refreshing. I found it inspiring that you stood up to an attempt by the White House to take advantage of you in a gravely ill state and at a time when you had temporarily ceded your powers of office to your Deputy, Comey. To lock horns with the full force of the Executive Branch as Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card attempted to sidestep your Deputy and a Justice Department determination that the Surveillance Program had no legal basis is no small thing. But, despite your weakened condition, you held your ground and refused to re-authorize the Program. Comey describes you as having "stunned" him:
[Attorney General Ashcroft] lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact... and then laid his head back down on the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them, "But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general."When the White House reauthorized the program anyway without any signature from the Justice Department attesting to its legality, the fact that you stood ready to resign, along with most of the Justice Department's leadership, made clear to me that I'd sized you up wrong. We may not agree on all the same policies, but it seems that we do see eye-to-eye on the need for the rule of law. When the Administration backed away from its position and changed its Program to secure the Justice Department's blessing—ultimately deciding to submit all of its surveillance requests for judicial approval—a Constitutional crisis was averted and the Executive branch maintained its legitimacy.
So a belated thank you John Ashcroft. On this decision, you were right on key and you truly Let The Eagle Soar.