Ashcroft: War On Terror Won 'One Day At A Time'

Sep 11, 2011
Originally published on September 11, 2011 10:05 pm

John Ashcroft's term as attorney general under George W. Bush was redefined by Sept. 11.

And he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the techniques endorsed by his Justice Department were necessary, from warrantless wiretaps to so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Defending The Patriot Act

One of Ashcroft's most controversial legacies is the Patriot Act, a piece of legislation that dramatically expanded the surveillance capabilities of law enforcement for monitoring terrorism suspects.

In 2003, Ashcroft went on a nationwide tour defending the act as it began to draw criticism. He tells Raz that after Sept. 11, the national security system had to catch terrorists before they acted, not after. Methods such as roving wiretaps, he says, were one way to do that.

"Under the old pre-Patriot Act, you were stuck with the idea that a wiretap was focused on a specific telephone," he says. "So that if a terrorist were to throw away his cell phone and buy a new one at the local 7-Eleven store, it took a week or two to get a wiretap authorized for the new phone."

Another post-Sept. 11 that drew criticism was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which required people from countries identified as "state sponsors of terror" to register with the federal government. Critics said the program amounted to racial profiling since most were Muslim countries. But Ashcroft disagrees.

"Whether you were white Anglo-Saxon Protestant or whether you were a Catholic or whether you were a Muslim or whether you were red or yellow, black or white or whatever your skin color was, you had the same responsibility for reporting and for participating in the program," he says. "Race is not a very good marker when it comes to trying to figure out whether someone is a terrorist or whether someone is a criminal."

Interrogation Techniques

In 2002, John Yoo — an attorney in Ashcroft's Justice Department — wrote a series of so-called "torture memos," which authorized harsh interrogation techniques of terrorism detainees. Ashcroft signed off on the memos although he said he didn't know of their details until later. But he says he approves of more intense interrogation to get information from suspects.

"It certainly seems that when the current administration finally found Osama bin Laden, they relied in some significant measure on information gleaned from previous interrogations of detainees," he says. "So if you can learn things that will help you disrupt other terrorist attacks, I think it's very important to a free society in a wartime situation to be able to exploit that information — to develop it and exploit it."

Ashcroft says the interrogation techniques were developed with existing laws in mind.

"I think there was a great deal of care undertaken to develop methods that were consistent with the law but which would yield information that would protect the American people and help prevent additional attacks," he says.

The Continuing War on Terror

When he retired in 2004, Ashcroft wrote in a handwritten letter to President Bush. "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved," he wrote. Today, he says he still believes that, but "the war on terror has to be won one day at a time."

"It's a dynamic situation — you have to win to remain safe and there won't be any kind of time that I can imagine where we will somehow be able to say we never have to worry about someone attacking us again," he says. "So regardless of what the administration is, it should be commended when it wins it. And it has to have a serious commitment to winning it over and over again."

Today, Ashcroft runs his own consulting company. Many of his clients are homeland security firms including Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide.

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GUY RAZ, Host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

One of the most divisive political figures in the months and years after 9/11 was the Attorney General John Ashcroft. Civil libertarians accused him of trampling on the rights of American citizens, particularly when it came to privacy. But many others believed Ashcroft responded to the attacks with the appropriate urgency.

The morning of September 11th, John Ashcroft was on his way to Milwaukee where he was scheduled to read to schoolchildren. He says a day later, he was forever changed. And he believed the judicial system needed to be changed as well. The focus now had to shift away from prosecution and towards prevention.

And so within weeks, Ashcroft's Justice Department helped write the controversial Patriot Act.

JOHN ASHCROFT: The Patriot Act represented a variety of tools which had been available in other law enforcement settings but hadn't been available in the war on terror. The so-called roving wiretap had been used against drug dealers, and it had been used against organized criminals since the late 1980s. But it had not been authorized for use in the collection of intelligence regarding potential terrorist offenses against the United States.

Under the old pre-Patriot Act, you were stuck with the idea that a wiretap was focused on a specific telephone. So that if a terrorist were to throw away his cell phone and buy a new one at the local 7-Eleven store, it took a week or two to get a wiretap authorized for the new phone.

RAZ: As we all recall, after the attacks, thousands of foreign nationals were required to register. Do you think that was a successful program?

ASHCROFT: The National Entry/Exit Registration System, it resulted in a number of people, substantial number of people, leaving the country voluntarily who had overstayed their visas and were here illegally. And the enforcement of that system really illustrates that in order to enforce a law and to have legal compliance, you don't have to address every person who is illegal or who has violated the law. You begin to enforce the law and people start to self-enforce. It's like a speeding law that if you're speeding and you see officers writing up people on that stretch of road, you begin to drive more carefully.

RAZ: Many of those foreign nationals were from Muslim countries. And as you know, some critics of the program say this amounted to racial profiling. How did you feel about that accusation?

ASHCROFT: Well, it was a false accusation. It was not based on race. It didn't matter what your race was. It didn't matter what your religion was. If you were an individual from a nation that had been identified as a state sponsor of terror and whether you were a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant or whether you were a Catholic or whether you were a Muslim or whether you were red or yellow, black or white, whatever your skin color was, you had the same responsibility for reporting and for participating in the program. Race is not a very good marker when it comes to trying to figure out whether someone's a terrorist or whether someone's a criminal.

RAZ: I'm speaking with former Attorney General John Ashcroft about the legacy of September 11th.

Much of the evidence gathered against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the most prominent detainee in U.S. custody, as you know, is inadmissible in court because it was extracted under duress, water boarding, for example. Do you think the so-called enhanced interrogation measures, now looking back on them, even if they seem necessary at the time, do you think they were a mistake?

ASHCROFT: No.

RAZ: Even though much of that evidence cannot be used to put him away?

ASHCROFT: It certainly seems that when the current administration finally found Osama bin Laden, they relied in some significant measure on information gleaned from previous interrogations of detainees. And so, if you can learn things that will help you disrupt other terrorist attacks, I think it's very important to a free society in a wartime situation to be able to exploit that information, to develop it and exploit it.

RAZ: So you believe that that was worth it, even though, as you know, as I'm sure you'll acknowledge, it was controversial. It is controversial.

ASHCROFT: Well, no court has ever ruled that the enhanced interrogation methods used by the United States violated any law. And I think there was a great deal of care undertaken to develop methods that were consistent with the law but which would yield information that would protect the American people and help prevent additional attacks. It's unlikely that this administration which properly, in my judgment, killed Osama bin Laden would have been able to do so had they not had intelligence yield from other circumstances.

RAZ: In your resignation letter, you said, and I'm quoting, "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved." Clearly, you believed that to be true the day you wrote it. Do you believe that to be the case today?

ASHCROFT: I think we have. But what you have to understand is that the war on terror has to be won one day at a time. That it's a dynamic situation. You have to win to remain safe. And there won't be any kind of time that I can imagine where we will somehow be able to say we never have to worry about someone attacking us again. And so, regardless of what the administration is, it should be commended when it wins it. And it has to have a serious commitment to winning it over and over and over again.

RAZ: Former Attorney General John Ashcroft. I spoke with him this past week at his office here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.