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Abrams grills Ashcroft, Gonzales

April 29, 2009
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Chief Legal Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC Dan Abrams attempted to put fire to feet of former attorneys-general John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales April 28 in the third installment of the 2009 public lecture series sponsored by the American Jewish University at Universal City’s Gibson Amphitheater.

Ashcroft smouldered throughout the evening, but Gonzales just sat there, often with a sheepish grin on his face.

The three gave individual opening statements before sitting down to spar. Most notable was Ashcroft’s somewhat Orwellian explanation of the necessity to have rules in a free society. He started with the simple-to-agree philosophy that in a free society you want to feel free from someone raping or murdering you, so society needs rules and needs to enforce them. But he did not make it clear where he would stop with that logic: if I did not want to be offended, where should society draw the line on freedom of speech, for instance.

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At times it looked as though he would like to silence the journalist moderator for asking what he considered to be unfair questions. Indeed, Abrams made no bones about not only being the moderator, but also having his own answers to some of his questions. Even the split audience agreed from time to time that Abrams appeared to step over the line with questions.

And tough questions they were for these two Bush-era attorneys general, who clearly felt that recent actions by President Barak Obama to declassify “torture memos” that defined the practice of water boarding as not being a form of torture. If “the best” legal advisers for the president said that waterboarding was not torture, then it wasn’t, they said. Releasing the memos only served to aid the enemy. “We relied on the best minds at the time,” Ashcroft said.

Gonzales agreed.

A contention point was whether a practice defined worldwide as illegal suddenly becomes legal simply by changing a law –or if as RIchard Nixon told David Frost “when the president does it, it is not illegal”– even if the act remains the same. The law has been changed again, so now the practice of yesterday becomes legal today, just as it was illegal last week. Again, doesn’t that sound like a bit of George Orwell’s 1984? From a strictly semantic point of view, it makes sense, but humanistically, it’s flawed?

From water boarding Abrams went to the firiing of federal prosecuters under the Bush administration. Again the two attorneys-general felt that Bush not only was within his rights to fire any attorneys that refused to uphold the policies of the president and refused to entertain the argument that the firings that took place were politically motivated. In fact, they both agreed that firing Democrats just because they had different political views would be illegal.

At one point Ashcroft was livid when he felt Abrams asked an unfair question of Gonzales. All issues are somewhat politically motived, Ashcroft argued, and it is important that federal prosecutors act on the same page. For instance, he said that if a California prosecutor refused to prosecute marijuana cases just because California thought the federal law should not apply here then that is a politcal issue. But the attorney could/should still be fired.

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Gonzales said that what he regretted most out of the attorney firings was that the reasons for the firings were not better communicated. In fact, both felt that poor communication with the public led to the controversy of many of the Bush-era policies.

Ashcroft, for instance, said he wished had done a better job commnicating to the public how the steps taken after 9/11, including the passage of the Patriot Act, prevented future attacks. “9/11 was devastating,” he said, “but nothing compared to what could have happened if he did not respond.”

One thing he was unwilling to communicate, though, were details of the now infamous hospital visit by then White House Gonzales and President Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., to persuade bed-ridden Ashcroft to reauthorize Bush’s domestic surveillance program, which Deputy AG James Comey had just determined was illegal.

He refused to answer questions about the incident, including reports that he threatened to resign afterward if Bush’s override of his refusal was not reversed. All he would confirm was that that was the story printed in the press. Gonzales followed Ahscroft’s lead and, with a Chesire grin on his face, refused to comment further.

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