Former attorney general John Ashcroft defended aggressive interrogation tactics the government used to try to forestall terrorist attacks but offered few details Thursday to lawmakers seeking insight into the most sensitive aspects of his tenure.
In his first Capitol Hill appearance to address national security issues since leaving the Justice Department three years ago, Ashcroft batted away probing questions, blaming his memory and citing the still-classified status of memos and programs the Bush administration adopted after Sept. 11, 2001.
Pressed by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, the former attorney general argued that coercive interrogation techniques including waterboarding did not meet the legal definition of torture. Ashcroft said that he was aware of no evidence during his term that would have prompted him to open a criminal investigation into actions by interrogators.
He refused repeated invitations to directly criticize John Yoo, a former deputy in the Office of Legal Counsel who worked closely with vice presidential aide David Addington and former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales to draft legal memos underpinning treatment of detainees and a warrantless surveillance initiative. Ashcroft later rescinded two of those memos.
But in an elliptical way, Ashcroft alluded to objections he raised about the importance of independent, detached advice after Yoo became an unsuccessful candidate to lead the OLC in 2003. He was more cryptic when lawmakers asked him to recount a now-famous episode the following year, when Gonzales and former White House chief of staff Andrew Card appeared at his hospital room in an attempt to persuade him to reauthorize a secret data-collection program.
Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Robert Wexler, D-Fla., pressed Ashcroft on whether he or others at the Justice Department provided legal advice to CIA agents who questioned al-Qaida operative Abu Zubaydah for several months beginning in March 2002. A formal Office of Legal Counsel memo supporting the aggressive interrogation strategies was not issued until August of that year.
That timeline led Christopher Anders, a senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, to question whether the interrogators operated outside the bounds of the law and whether they could face investigation for what one FBI agent later told the Justice inspector general was “borderline torture.”
Current Attorney General Michael Mukasey, in a letter to lawmakers last week, said government officials had sought advice from the Justice Department “as to the lawfulness of the proposed course of conduct” before the CIA employed the techniques.