Upon resigning as attorney general, in 2004, John Ashcroft wrote that he "believes the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership and fresh inspiration." The irony of those words is not lost on anyone who has been following recent developments in the campaign to get at the truth behind what someday be called the purges of Al Gonzales.
Keeping in mind that his predecessor in the Justice Department, Mr. Ashcroft, is considered the point man behind the USA Patriot Act, recent revelations that Ashcroft, his deputy James B. Comey, and then FBI DirectorRobert Mueller considered quitting in response to what they considered the dubious legality of the NSA program is stunning. Even more startling is the account of then White House counsel, and President Bush's chief of staff Andrew H. Card's visit to the hospital bedside of the ailing Ashcroft in an attempt to strong arm him, and get him to sign off on a program that he would otherwise not approve, a program that allows this administration to bypass the need for warrants to intercept, and monitor, international telephone calls in violation of FISA, and the First Amendment. Mr. Comey made these extraordinary allegations, earlier this week, before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of their investigation into another dubious activity, the authorization to fire nine U.S. attorneys.
Picture a dark hospital room, a heavily medicated patient, and the arrival of two high powered government officials, Gonzales and Card, not only asking that Ashcroft authorize the spy program, but in defiance of the fact that James Comey, his deputy, had now taken over as acting attorney general. According to Comey's testimony, Ashcroft had already decided that the program was dubious, and didn't want to renew it. Nevertheless, trying to slip in under the radar, Gonzales was on a mission to get what the president wanted, a blessing from the Justice Department to monitor phone calls. "Mr. Comey said Mr. Ashcroft rose weakly from his hospital bed, but in strong and unequivocal terms, refused to approve the eavesdropping program." (NYT)
Despite what anyone tells you, Gonzales is, and has always been, a glorified hit man. He doesn't give the commands, he merely executes them. Getting what Mr. Bush wants is consistently number one on the Gonzales agenda. Indeed, this president couldn't have conceived of a more submissive, and subordinate, Justice Department; not exactly what the framers had in mind by the phrase "balance of power."
John Ashcroft was to the war on terror what Leonard Bernstein was to the New York Philharmonic yet, curiously, Mr. Ashcroft has been conspicuously silent on the events of that evening. One might expect him to acknowledge that not only was the executive branch on human growth hormones, but so was the Justice Department. More importantly, Justice was busying itself with something even more radical, a jihad of its own; the subversion, and subrogation, of our civil liberties.
Consider, for a moment, that the architect of a radical right wing, neo-conservative agenda stood up, barely conscious, from his hospital bed, and refused to go along with the program; what a defining moment for democracy. And, while the president agreed to Mr. Comey's demands to tweak the N.S.A. legislation so that it would at least have the illusion of legality, that doesn't lessen the statement Ashcroft made against a constitutional implosion, nor make his subsequent defection from the ranks of Bush loyalists any less significant.
Those who now call for Attorney General Gonzales to step down echo the cries, months earlier, for Donald Rumsfeld's head. Neither resignation has made, or will make, a palpable difference in business as usual in Washington. What is increasingly lost in the shuffle is that both Gonzales and Rumsfeld are henchmen. What's more, should Gonzales step down as Ashcroft did before him, the president will merely appoint another likeminded attorney general, and one who doesn't make the mistake of getting caught.
You may recall a character strip figure that emerged during World War II, GI Joe, who won the hearts of millions. Joe went on to become an action figure, and Hasbro's best loved boy doll. In response to concerns about the war in Vietnam, the toy manufacturer chose to transform GI Joe from a warrior into the leader of an adventure team, one that was inspired by the idea of fighting evil. The war on terror has created a climate that's ripe for a new doll, Jihad Joe, and the adventures of the great avenger of the axis of evil. If the mentality of some of Bush's appointees is any indication, it's a safe bet that GI Joe found his way into the hands of the president.
But where did the arbiter of constitutional law, and justice, get his notions of blind obedience to the burning Bush? Clearly, his predecessor managed to maintain some independence of thought, which may explain why he's no longer attorney-general.
The fact that the Justice Department actually contemplated terminating more than 25% of the U.S. attorneys in the middle of a presidential term, no less, is quite a story, but the bigger story is not who the department wanted to fire, and why, but that documents pertaining to their termination were "withheld from the public." (WaPo) That the lists of prosecutors up for elimination provided evidence of the randomness involved in the decision-making process only goes to show that the president's fingerprints were all over it, but the quintessential question is why the Justice documents were accepted for release " in censored form," and include only limited, approved information. What is there on these lists that is classified, and what threat to "national security" would their release pose? More importantly, how are they any different from those kept by another GI Joe---Joe McCarthy?
David York, among the U.S. attorneys targeted for dismissal, called the lists of US attorneys slated for firing a "non-story." ( WaPo) He's right. The real story is censorship, the Bush administration's ongoing efforts to withhold public documents, and an appointed attorney general who doesn't recognize, or respect, his independence from the executive branch. This hyper focus, by the media, on minutia of the story, as well as on Gonzales's famous memory lapses only serves to distract from how it is that a government is allowed to operate, with impunity, in secret, and in defiance of its Constitution, for nearly a decade.
The Jihad Joes will have won their war on civil liberties if this government is permitted to use turbulent discourse on the war in Iraq as a way to deflect attention away from its efforts to play hide and seek with the First Amendment, to operate in secret, as well as to put a silencer on open dissent.
Alas, the only smoking gun many in the mainstream media are willing to cover is the one used by Phil Spector. Unless the focus changes, and fast, we will soon come to see that the only difference between government and organized crime is that organized crime pays better.