Video: John Ashcroft on 'Never Again'

By Keith Olbermann Anchor, 'Countdown'
updated 10/17/2006 10:34:58 AM ET 2006-10-17T14:34:58

On Monday, "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann talked to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft about his new book, "Never Again," the warning signs before 9/11 and the accusations in David Kuo's new book, "Tempting Faith."

You can read the transcript below.

KEITH OLBERMANN, "COUNTDOWN' HOST:  The title of former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s book is “Never Again,” perhaps not intended to be interpreted differently by his admirers and by his critics, but doubtless to be so, and no doubt to the good in terms of book sales.  It is, not surprisingly, a staunch defense of the Bush administration and some of its most controversial actions by one of the pivotal figures of Mr. Bush’s first term. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the new book by the man who ran the U.S. Justice Department from 2001 to 2005, former attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft. 

Thank you for some of your time tonight, sir. 

JOHN ASHCROFT, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, thank you.  Nice to be with you.

OLBERMANN:  Let me start with your assessment in “Never Again” about the 9/11 Commission, that it was, quote, “obsessed,” unquote, with finding fault with the Bush administration. 

Two Republican members of that commission have responded.  Former Senator Gorton of Washington, former Governor Thompson of Illinois, told “The St. Louis Post Dispatch” that your claims are not true, that President Bush ended up apologizing to the commission for your behavior. 

Did that apology occur, and why would commission Republicans have gone after the Bush administration in the first place? 

ASHCROFT:  Well, I’m not in the business for answering for their behavior, their statements.  I felt that the commission, frankly, was ignoring a number of very important things, and it could be that some would be disenchanted for what I did, because I took information to the commission that it seemed intent on ignoring or not otherwise providing, including the fact that the wall which separated intelligence and law enforcement had been crafted and developed in a memorandum authored by a member of the commission.

Now, for people to sit in judgment on conduct and not reveal the fact that they in fact were the sponsors of the conduct seemed to me to be something that people deserved to know, and it added, I think, to the way in which the commission should operate. 

It wasn’t something the commission, I suppose, was happy to hear, but I thought they needed that as well as some other things to be revealed. 

So in my commission appearance, I basically told them things that I thought they didn’t—weren’t giving the right emphasis to, and which I thought were important for an objective and fair deliberation, which should have been the responsibility of the commission. 

OLBERMANN:  Governor Thompson said—and then I’ll move on from this subject, if that’s all right with you—that you “had tried to put us”—referring to the 9/11 commission—“on trial, and it backfired.  The President of the United States apologized to us in the Oval Office for his conduct, which is kind of embarrassing.” 

Do you know if the president apologized for your actions to the commission? 

ASHCROFT:  I do not know.  I wasn’t in the Oval Office with the commission.  And if I caused any embarrassment to the president, I regret that.  But I felt that, as I explained earlier, my conduct in the commission was in line with I thought appropriate matters to be brought to the attention of both the commission and the American people, not just about the facts of the matter, but relating to the way in which the commission had been involved in specific policies that were major problems with our fight against terror. 

:  On that subject, and the topic also of 9/11, I’m sure you’re aware of the reaction to another new book, Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial,” specifically his claim that then NSA Adviser Rice had gotten a briefing on July 10th, 2001 about the growing threat of al Qaeda attacks. 

After some research, her office confirmed that, and as part of that confirmation from Dr. Rice’s office, her spokesman says she had then asked that you be given the same briefing that she had received at that time. 

Were you given that briefing, and if so, what measures did you take? 

ASHCROFT:  We were given briefings all through that period of time, which was a time when a great deal was spoken of elevated risk levels.  I specifically queried the individuals providing me with the briefings—and I suspect she did the same—about whether these were domestic or whether these were threat levels that were in line with the kind of damage we had received in our embassies in Eastern Africa and to the USS Cole when it had been docked in Yemen and the boat bomb came and took the lives of a number of our sailors. 

I was over and over again told upon my—in response to my inquiry that there was no evidence of domestic threat. 

The real question, I guess, here is, what was the nature of the briefing?  No one denies that we were getting briefings regularly through the summer, and there were indications about elevated threat levels.  I just simply did not get indication, even upon specific inquiry, that there was an elevated or anticipated threat level based on any evidence that there would be attacks in the United States.

OLBERMANN:  In your new book, you have defended some of the more imposing efforts to fight terror and terrorism, and this subject is particularly relevant right now, because the president is set to sign the Military Commissions Act tomorrow, which is going to codify some of those efforts into law. 

I’d like to read one of the definitions in the act and ask you a hypothetical about it, if I may.  “The term ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ means -- (I), a person who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co- belligerents who is not a lawful enemy combatant.”

What is there in this new law that would check the president—or any president, not in terms of tradition or in terms of common sense nor even in terms of fear of bad publicity—but in that measure itself, if a president claims that you or I materially supported hostilities against America and declares us unlawful enemy combatants and he wants to send you and I off to Guantanamo Bay, where in the law does it say the president can’t do that? 

ASHCROFT:  Well, let me just first indicate that I have not read this new statute in its completeness. 

I do believe that the president should have the authority to designate individuals who bear arms or take up hostility against the United States as enemy combatants.  I think in doing so, the president has a responsibility to have a process that is consistent with the Constitution. 

We have a president; we don’t have a king.  And he has to make a determination based on facts. 

Holding anyone who is bearing arms against the United States pending the outcome of the conflict is—or against any country—is long recognized as something that is part of having war.  And when you have a war, you’ve got to be able to take prisoners.  If you don’t, the alternative is to kill all the people that you encounter, and certainly that is not what we want done. 

So the ability of a president to apprehend those fighting against the country and to take them out of the stream of conflict so that they’re not fighting our own flesh and blood that is representing the country in defense of freedom is a humanitarian thing, to move them out of the stream rather than reinsert them with an ability to again assault our own people. 

OLBERMANN:  But to flip Archibald Cox’s old bromide on its head from the Watergate days, is there not a risk in this of this country becoming a nation of men and not laws, rather than laws and not men? 

ASHCROFT:  Well, I really don’t think so.  It’s a risk that we’ve endured now for well over 200 years.  Presidents in all kinds of conflicts have supervised the executive branch defense the United States, and when they are having encountered an enemy and they have not killed the enemy and the enemy has surrendered, we have taken them as prisoners.  Or when we have captured enemy, we have taken them as prisoners and we detain them pending the outcome of the conflict. 

And I believe it would be morally wrong to release them to take another shot at our team, so to speak.  And it is part and parcel of the responsibility of the—of responsible war making entities, let alone terrorists, but any war making that is done in defense of a culture or society involves taking prisoners and maintaining them until the outcome has been determined. 

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, sir, your book is coming out almost simultaneously with that of a former staffer of yours, David Kuo.  His is called “Tempting Faith,” and I don’t believe I’m putting words into his mouth when I summarize his conclusion there that he feels Mr. Bush’s administration took political advantage of conservative Christians, that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives was referred to in scatological terms by Karl Rove, that—not Mr.

Rove but others in the administration—dismissed various religious leaders behind their backs as nuts and such. 

The White House has called Mr. Kuo’s credibility into question.  Which would best describe the David Kuo that you worked with—Christian, conservative, credible, fibber?  Which would you say? 

ASHCROFT:  Well, when I authored the charitable choice portions of the law, David Kuo was on my staff and he was very helpful in helping us put together this opportunity to level the playing field, so that faith-based organizations were not excluded from the opportunity of providing on a contract basis services to the government, just like other organizations frequently do when the government turns to private contractors.

In that setting, he performed his responsibilities in assisting me in the development of that law. 

I must add, however, that the kinds of things that he’s talked about in conjunction with this administration do not comport with my experience there, and as a matter of fact, I think what he—at least as it relates to the charitable choice provisions and faith-based organizations opportunities, when he left the office at the White House, it is my understanding that he commended the performance of the administration in achieving the objectives of the statute which we wrote. 

OLBERMANN:  The former attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft, whose new book is called “Never Again.”  Great thanks for your time and being with us, sir.

ASHCROFT:  My pleasure.  Thank you.

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