Know Your Right Wingers
SOURCE: August Pollak
During John David Ashcroft’s four-year stint as Attorney General of the United States, the partially nude statues of Liberty and Justice that adorn the Great Hall of the Justice Department, where Ashcroft held press conferences, were veiled by blue curtains. Although Ashcroft denies that he had a hand in the cover-up (so to speak), the symbolism was not lost on detractors who believed that Ashcroft’s attack on civil liberties and his radical right-wing ideology were incompatible with a just and free society.
Ashcroft entered the world as the son of a Pentecostal preacher on May 9th, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. He relocated to Springfield, Missouri, and later traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, to attend Yale University. After he graduated in 1964, he returned to Illinois, where he earned a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1967. He then taught Business Law at Southwest Missouri University. He began his 32-year government career as an auditor for the state of Missouri in 1973. He later became Missouri’s Attorney General, and, in 1985, was elected Governor, after employing some dubious campaign tactics: He allegedly used state employees to fundraise and conduct other election activities. He solicited donations using letterhead embossed with the Attorney General’s seal. In fact, court records show that he had a colleague solicit contributions from a business consultant to a company being investigated by Ashcroft’s Attorney General’s office.
Ashcroft’s lifelong crusade against women’s rights was well in place by the time he was Missouri’s Attorney General. In 1977 the National Organization for Women was forced to defend itself from a lawsuit filed by Ashcroft alleging that a national boycott, led by N.O.W., of states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, which Ashcroft opposed, was a violation of federal anti-trust law. Although his case was defeated on First Amendment grounds, some charged that the lawsuit was based on politics, rather than a concern for the rule of law. Ashcroft also defended in the Supreme Court a 1979 Missouri law that restricts the time, place, and manner of abortions, and, as Governor, signed a bill into law that defined conception as the beginning of life.
Ashcroft’s views on international relations were also extreme. He made an appearance in Global Governance: The Quiet War Against American Independence, a 1997 film produced by Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. The film claimed that the U.S. was losing sovereignty to international institutions such as the U.N., and makes some fairly ridiculous claims in the process. For example, President Clinton is accused of furthering an international “plan for global, or world, control to supersede our self-government by ‘We the people’” – a plan allegedly approved by Clinton’s former professor, Carroll Quigley of Georgetown University.
One is tempted to believe that Ashcroft must have been suffering from a bout of calico cat induced paranoia, but he denies the bizarre rumors that he believed calico cats were incarnations of the devil. To his credit, Ashcroft does not talk about the New World Order in the film; he focuses his attention on claiming that U.N. treaties and conventions, such as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, are subverting the rights of parents.
Ashcroft loves dead white men, except when he loses to one
As if his hard right-wing bona fides needed any further proof, Ashcroft has said that the only things found in the middle of the road are “a moderate and a dead skunk.” But by praising the magazine Southern Partisan, which has claimed that slave owners "encouraged strong slave families to further the slaves’ peace and happiness," he seems to have swerved to the right and hit a tree. In an interview featured in the magazine, which The New Republic has called the “leading journal of the neo-Confederacy movement," Ashcroft crooned that the Southern Partisan “helps set the record straight. You’ve got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like [Robert E.] Lee, [Stonewall] Jackson and [Jefferson] Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I’ve got to do more. We’ve all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes and their honor to some perverted agenda."
In 1999, Ashcroft was the commencement speaker at Bob Jones University, which awarded him an honorary degree. Because the South Carolina university did not lift its ban on interracial dating until 2000 and because of the content of his speech, his visit to BJU became a source of contention during his 2001 confirmation hearings to be Attorney General. Ashcroft’s religiosity also has become a source of interest. For example, Ashcroft is anointed with cooking oil each time he is sworn into an elected office. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas performed the honors when Ashcroft began his job as U.S. Attorney General. Ashcroft claims in his autobiographical book Lessons from a Father to his Son, which was published in 1998, that he has revived the ancient ritual in an attempt to replicate "the ancient kings of Israel, David and Saul," who were anointed with special oil before assuming their rule.
In 2000, Ashcroft considered running for President, but chose instead to run for re-election to the Senate. Ashcroft’s opponent, then-Governor of Missouri Mel Carnahan, died in an airplane crash two weeks before the election, but state election laws mandated that his name could not be removed from the ballot. Lieutenant Governor Roger Wilson announced that he would appoint Jean Carnahan, who was Governor Carnahan’s wife, to the state’s chief executive post should the deceased Governor win. Ashcroft lost an election to a dead man, and Jean Carnahan became Missouri’s new Senator.
As if appearing less attractive to voters than a dead man was not embarrassing enough, Ashcroft and his two political organizations, the Spirit of America PAC and his Senate reelection campaign committee, were fined by the Federal Elections Committee for at least four violations of federal campaign laws during the 2000 senatorial race. Apparently, Ashcroft has been using these same political organizations to raise money, as much as $100,000 in 2003, in order to pay legal fees and fines associated with the FEC’s investigation. This fundraising has led to further investigations. Apparently years of moralizing failed to give Ashcroft the strength to resist the temptation to play dirty.
He’s that guy who comes over to your house and looks in all your drawers
Ashcroft wasn’t unemployed for long, however; President George W. Bush nominated him as Attorney General in December of 2000. Senate Democrats asserted that Ashcroft had a record of using the law in inappropriate ways to further his own ideological and political interests, and many of them fought hard against confirmation. Ultimately, Ashcroft was confirmed by a 58-42 vote.
After the September 11th attacks, Ashcroft worked fast to expand the power of the executive branch and weaken protection for civil rights and privacy. He was instrumental in rushing the 342-page USA PATRIOT Act Act through Congress. Considering that it passed the Senate 98-1, Ashcroft’s scare tactics, which included forceful warnings of additional terrorist attacks if the bill was not passed quickly, worked well to ensure a quick and easy passage without the scrutiny and debate that a bill of its magnitude should receive. (Congress has just reached a deal that would provide some minor improvements, but leave the bill largely intact.)
The Patriot Act is long and complicated, but it is worth getting to know a few of its most questionable provisions:
1. Section 215, which is also called the “Library provision,” amends the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) in several ways: it broadens the rationale for which records can be seized without a warrant; it weakens judicial oversight of these seizures; and it does away with limitations of the type of the item that can be seized and the type of business or entity from which it can be seized.
Easily one of the most controversial provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 215 essentially allows the government to search an individual’s records that are held by third parties, such as library or credit card records, without having to establish probable cause, present any evidence, or notify the target of the search. Government officials need only “certify” that the records are related to an investigation that aims to “protect against international terrorism” and that the investigation was not based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment. Judges have no authority to deny applications except on procedural grounds. Librarians strenuously objected to Section 215. Ashcroft, never one to abuse a gender stereotype, called the librarians “hysterical.”
2. Section 505 allows the Attorney General, or a delegate, to write a “National Security Letter” to any third party holding an individual’s files or records without any judicial review at all. These letters force the recipient to fulfill the request, forbid them from discussing the request, and do not involve any judicial oversight. The USA PATRIOT Act has abolished the requirement that the letters only be sent out pursuant to investigations of individuals suspected of espionage; individuals need only to be relevant to an investigation involving international terrorism or espionage.
The new law also gives around five dozen supervisors the ability to issue these letters. The number of requests has increased one hundred fold to 30,000 requests a year since the USA PATRIOT Act passed. Although Section 505 has received less attention than Section 215, it can also be used to obtain library records and other personal files. It has since been ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in New York. To make matters worse, Ashcroft changed a guideline that forced all information collected with the records to be destroyed when it was no longer relevant to the purposes for which it was collected. This section was declared unconstitutional by a federal court in New York, and is now under judicial scrutiny in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Ashcroft’s policies and speeches led to a widespread feeling that a new McCarthyism had swept over America. For example, in a remarkable statement to Congress on December 7, 2001, Ashcroft testified, “To those who … scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies…."
Adding fuel to the fire, Ashcroft defended Operation TIPS in July 2002. The program aimed at using government workers to report “suspicious” activity to authorities. Information that was gathered was to be kept in the databases of various law enforcement agencies. After the U.S. Postal Service refused to participate and there were a number of critical news articles, the peeping postmen idea was scrapped.
Operation TIPS was only one of the overbearing programs with which Ashcroft’s department was involved. A draft copy of The Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, which became widely known as PATRIOT Act II, was leaked to the media. News of the act’s provisions caused an uproar, especially over a provision that would have allowed U.S. citizens to be stripped of their citizenship. The bill was never passed.
There is a great deal of evidence that under Ashcroft’s watch institutions such as the Joint Terrorism Taskforces (JTTF) have been abused for political purposes. At Drake University in Iowa, for example, JTTF officers issued subpoenas to nonviolent protestors, ordering them to appear in front of a federal grand jury, and one subpoena to the university itself, demanding records that could be used to identify people who were present at an anti-war conference that was held on campus. The subpoenas, which were issued to investigate an alleged incident of trespassing at the Iowa National Guard headquarters the day after the conference, were later dropped.
Ashcroft also defended a federal abortion ban, the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, that has been declared unconstitutional by several courts because it does not contain an exception for the health of the mother. In an attempt to prove that certain abortion procedures doctors had deemed necessary were not, Ashcroft subpoenaed the medical records of over 2,000 patients. Ashcroft’s Justice Department explained it as well as anyone when it argued in federal court that patients can "no longer possess a reasonable expectation that their histories will remain completely confidential."
Don’t quit your day job
Besides Constitution shredding, John Ashcroft is also a determined singer/songwriter, much to the chagrin of much his staff. His best known song is “Let The Eagle Soar,” which is, indeed, a soaring paean to our nation. Before he went solo as U.S. Attorney General, however, he was in a barbershop quartet called The Singing Senators with Trent Lott (R-MI), Larry Craig (R-ID), and eventual G.O.P. defector James Jeffords (I-Vermont). During his time as a Missouri State Auditor, Ashcroft also recorded a Gospel album – TRUTH: Volume One, Edition One.
On second thought, please quit your day job
On February 5th, 2005, a few months after getting a gallstone removed, Ashcroft resigned. While many believed that he quit due to health concerns, others opined that he was forced out by a White House that sought a less conspicuous Attorney General in its second term. Since leaving the administration, he has gotten a job as a professor of Law and Government at Regent University, which was founded by Pat Robertson. It seems like a cushy gig, seeing as he only spends two weeks a semester on campus. He is also rumored to be writing another book.
Illustration: August J. Pollak