Ashcroft Was Right to Release Memos

President Bush took a slap at Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft yesterday–after Ashcroft had done the right thing. It was not the President’s finest moment.

The question is this: Was Ashcroft right or wrong to release a set of memos, written by high-ranking officials in the Clinton Justice Department, which demonstrate those officials went to extraordinary lengths to prevent FBI agents monitoring suspected spies and terrorists from sharing information with U.S. attorneys?

President Bush says Ashcroft was wrong.

Yesterday, he went so far as to rebuke Ashcroft’s Justice Department while speaking with the highly partisan commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. This allowed the Los Angeles Times, for example, to run a story with the headline: “Release of Terrorism Memos Angers Bush; The President Rebukes his Justice Department for Partisan Motives in Making Public Documents Related to a 9/11 Panel Member.”

Indeed, one of the commissioners sitting before the President when the President rebuked his own attorney general was Jamie Gorelick–who not only served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton Administration but also was the very author of the most important and controversial document that Ashcroft released.

Was the President sucking up to the commission at the expense of his most loyal Cabinet member? In his afternoon press briefing yesterday, White House Spokesman Scott McClellan provided all the data needed to answer that question.

After a reporter mentioned the documents released by the Justice Department, the following exchange ensued:

McClellan: “No, I understand. That’s what the Justice Department did; we were not involved in it. I think the President was disappointed about that.”

Question: “The President was disappointed in the Justice Department releasing those documents?”

McClellan: “Putting that on their web site, yes.”

Question: “Why.”

McClellan: “He actually expressed that to the commission as well.”

Question: “But did he talk to–”

Question: “How about to Ashcroft?

Question: “Yes, to General Ashcroft?”

McClellan: “I think it’s been communicated to the Justice Department.”

Question: “So why was he disappointed–”

McClellan: “Well, like I said, it’s what I said at the beginning. The President does not believe we ought to be pointing fingers during this time period. We ought to be working together to help the commission complete its work. This is very important work that they are doing that will help us in our efforts to carry out the President’s most solemn responsibility, which is to protect the American people.”

That’s not an answer. It’s the sort of thing the President might step in down at his Crawford ranch.

The commission’s job is to tell the American people what went wrong. It cannot do that unless it gets the facts. The memos produced by the Clinton Justice Department restricting communication about terrorists between the FBI and federal prosecutors are facts. They go directly to the question of what went wrong before September 11.

A government official in possession of them has only two choices: 1) Make them public, or 2) cover them up.

Is the President suggesting that Ashcroft should have covered them up so no one could accuse his administration of pointing a finger at the stupid policies of the Clinton Justice Department?

The President’s supporters did not elect him so his administration could cover up the idiocies of the Clinton Justice Department.

Beyond that there’s a basic property right at stake here: Who owns these memos?

Neither George Bush nor John Ashcroft nor Janet Reno nor Jamie Gorelick own documents produced by officials at the Justice Department or any other federal agency. We, the people, own them. Every one of them is produced at taxpayer expense.

No government official–not even the President of the United States–has a presumptive right to prevent the public from seeing its own property.

Only an extraordinary public interest can justify withholding a public document from public view. It can be justified (a) if releasing it would harm national security or public safety or (b) violate someone’s right to privacy (as in releasing a citizen’s tax return). The documents produced by the Reno Justice Department that were released by the Ashcroft Justice Department do not fall into either of these categories.

Reno and Gorelick, as public servants, had no expectation of privacy when they produced these memos. Their release actually enhances, rather than impairs, public safety and national security.

John Ashcroft had no moral or legal right to withhold them. If he is withholding others like them, President Bush should order him to release them immediately.

Their owners would like to see them.