Talking With Ashcroft: Detainees, 9/11, Patriot Act

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Oct 03, 2006 5:10 PM

If more Republicans spoke like former Attorney General John Ashcroft, I'd be a whole lot happier voter.

Ashcroft did a conference call with bloggers today. He's got a new book out called "Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice," but he was kind enough to let us pretty much have at it with questions.

Read an excerpt of the book, here. I'll collect links from other bloggers, but for now, click through to the excerpt and the Malkin interview. Even if you don't agree with him on every point, he's a pleasure to listen to.

There was a lot of talk about detainee status and the Hamdan decision. Frankly, I think Ashcroft speaks more clearly on this issue than anyone I've heard speak on it. Would that we had a Republican in the public eye who was as eloquent on the matter. I'm glad he's got a book out, so that he's talking about it more often. I got some quotes, but I'm going to paraphrase a lot.

If you haven't listened to Ashcroft and Malkin's discussion from this morning, go sign in and listen. It's great. They covered many of the same issues, and Michelle got some immigration talk in there, too.

He opened with this point about prisoners of war:

"It is an act of mercy to take prisoners."

The alternative, of course, is to kill them in the field, which doesn't get you into any trouble at all unless they're trying to surrender, he said. It also doesn't have the potential to get you any information.

"It is not improper to fail to charge them with a crime because for people to defend their side of a conflict has never been a crime...But to release them would be immoral."

"Innocent parties attacked should not have to bear the risk of the lack of definition that attends the mission of the attacker. They participated in that kind of attack. They should bear the risk."

I liked the way he put that. Some argue that, because we don't know when the current conflict will end, it's immoral to hold enemy combatants/prisoners of war without charges until hostilities cease, as has been the accepted course of action in other wars. But he's exactly right-- that argument asks American citizens and American soldiers to bear the cost of our enemy's decision to wage a war in violation of the general rules of warfare.

John Hawkins of RightWingNews asked, given that no one else we're ever in conflict with honors the Geneva Conventions, aren't we warranted in making some of our own rules?

"It seems to me it's a major disincentive to comply with the Geneva Conventions if we're going to give them to those who disregard and repudiate them."

I really recommend the Malkin/Ashcroft interview for more of his thoughts on this.

Rob Bluey of Human Events asked Ashcroft's reaction to NSA and SWIFT leaks to the NYT.

"I think it's very dangerous to the national interest."

"In the deadly game of hide-and-seek, when the hiders know where the seeakers are seeking...If they know we're looking for the funding, guess what?"

They hide elsewhere.

"The arrogance of individuals who make for themselves the decision that it's in the national interest to reveal something I think really portrays a great deal of ignorance."

He pointed out that a leaker could think something should be revealed, but have no idea that the item he's revealing is an important connector that could dismantle another intelligence operation.

I pointed out that, whether we like it or not, the 9/11 Commission Report has become something of a benchmark. People are always referring to it and the recommendations made therein. I asked, given that the 9/11 Commission was somewhat of a circus, what are the pros and cons of measuring our progress on security by that document?

"As an exclusive benchmark, it would be misleading."

"There are some recommendations that I'm not sure lead us in the right direction."

"I think it has value and should be part of the debate."

He noted that his testimony before the 9/11 Commission was his way of trying to push the Commission toward a more judicious approach. He objected, not only to the conflicts of interest of someone like Jamie Gorelick serving on the Commission, but to the way that the group was touting their findings before they came out-- kinda teasing the thing as if it were entertainment.

Paul from PowerLine asked why Ashcroft thinks there are such divisions, even among those on the right, on the detainee issue.

"I think they don't have the same appreciation I do."

He noted his close proximity to terrorist intelligence and his son's close proximity to physical danger, as a sailor in the Gulf, as reasons he takes the threat extremely seriously. He went on to discuss the hypothetical of having given each prisoner of war during WWII all the rights and treatment the left wishes for unlawful enemy combatants today.

"For Heaven's sake, having all the safeguards is simply unsafe and impossible."

"I am a little bit uneasy about the courts making assessments about the seriousness of our cirumstances. They are not privy to the intelligence the President is, nor should they be."

Ashcroft argued with the notion that the Congress is somehow automatically more legitimate or responsive in exerting war powers than the President.

"I think we need to ask, 'who is the most responsible branch and who is the most responsive?'"

"The President is voted on by many more people than any other public official."

Paul from PowerLine suggested that the electorate also holds the President more personally responsible for acts of terror committed in the country than it does any single member of Congress.

"I don't think there's any question about that. Most members of Congress are not asked to answer to the media in D.C. They go home to the media...The President has to face the national media and, frankly, that's healthy."

Ace asked about the Patriot Act and its detractors:

"Name one person who's been victimized by the Patriot Act."

"I don't think there's any question that the groups that have opposed this have done so very profitably...I hate that I've been such an instrument in raising so much money for the other side."

Ashcroft pointed out that 88 senators voted for the Patriot Act.

"You can't get 88 Senators to agree it's Tuesday."

"I think all the perceived problems with it are not actually problems."

"I don't think libraries should be a special sanctuary for child porn and terrorists and others who would use the Internet to otherwise disrupt the lives of Americans."

Ace has much more on this:

[He] went on to note that Dianne Feinstein had gotten 20,000 emails and letters and phone calls complaining about specific alleged violations of civil liberties due to the Patriot Act, but few of these had anything to do with the Patriot Act. Some, he said, had to do with complaints about the post office (I couldn't break in to ask what these complaints were). When he asked the ACLU for specific alleged civil-rights violations of the Patriot Act, he said, they were unable to produce any. Further, he said, there have not been any successful lawsuits proving any violations...

He noted that pure ignorance keeps people believing that, prior to the Patriot Act, the government couldn't subpoena business or financial (or any other) records; somehow people have this idea that prior to the Patriot Act, no one could look into your books, even with a court order.

My boss asked what words Ashcroft had for conservatives frustrated with the Republican majority.

"For conservatives, think carefullly about who you want to run the country...If you really want Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, then vote that way."

"Congress is not the science of perfection."

"Handing it over to people who's real confidence is in government and expanded government is not where I want to be."

Update: John Hawkins has a write-up, here.