Elizabeth de la Vega at Atlantic Free Press:
Ashcroft did not disappoint. Almost immediately, he delighted Christian conservatives by gathering his subordinates together on federal property to participate in daily Pentecostal Christian prayer meetings. (Hey, they were voluntary meetings and anyone — Jew, Muslim, Pagan, Buddhist, Atheist, Wiccan — could participate, so what is the big deal?) In May 2001, he turned to another top priority: undermining gun prosecutions by formally advising the NRA that the DOJ would no longer take the position that the Second Amendment does not guarantee private citizens the right to bear arms, a 180 degree shift from longstanding DOJ policy.
Using the DOJ to repay the gun lobby that had donated over $1 million to the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign was a trifle, however, compared to the decision to pull the plug on over 50 environmental cases against air-polluting power plants and refineries that had also, coincidentally, been huge donors to the Republican party in the 2000 election. In late June of 2001, the DOJ not only suspended its lawsuits against the energy companies, but advised them to abandon the pollution-control upgrades they were implementing as part of pending settlement agreements. This, as we now know, was merely the beginning of the administration’s use of both the Ashcroft and Gonzales DOJ to benefit big business at the expense of the environment — an assault that is now in its sixth year.
Also in its sixth year is the assault on civil rights and liberties Bush and Cheney set in motion in 2001 — with the wholehearted cooperation of Ashcroft and so many others in the highest levels of the very agency specifically designated to uphold those rights and liberties.
It was, for example, the head of the DOJ’s criminal division — the current Director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff — who, in the fall of 2001, supervised the round-up of over 1000 Arab and Muslim non-citizens within the United States, holding them as “material witnesses” to offenses that were never quite specified. Although the men were imprisoned for months, often in solitary confinement, Chertoff refused to allow them to have lawyers, because — he argued without apparent irony — they were not charged with a crime. In 2003, the DOJ’s inspector general called this draconian mass detention “indiscriminate and haphazard.” Ashcroft’s response to that charge? He would “make no apology.”
It was Ashcroft who, in 2001, first lobbied Congress for broad expansion of government surveillance powers in the form of the Patriot Act, which included changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. What we did not know, however, was at the same time the attorney general and his minions were secretly acquiescing to widespread violations of that same law. Because the administration has slithered away from oversight and accountability at every turn, we still — six years later — know almost nothing about the executive branch’s illegal surveillance.
Of all the lawlessness sanctioned and nurtured by the DOJ since Bush and Cheney took office, none is more horrifying than the treatment of the thousands who have been detained in the name of the undeclared “War on Terror.” As we now know, on September 25, 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft’s subordinate John Yoo penned a memo which informed the president that he had virtually unlimited authority to take retaliatory or preventive action against “terrorists.”
Beginning in October of 2001 — with the door to any and all forms of illegal government conduct having been thrown open by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel — Ashcroft, Chertoff and many other DOJ officials watched and offered counsel to advance a program of mass detentions in Afghanistan and elsewhere that were, more often than not, based on unreliable information and even mere whim. They acquiesced in the torture of these prisoners by both our own and foreign governments, attempting to justify this unspeakable conduct with the now-withdrawn memo John Yoo submitted to then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales in August 2002. (That our highest government officials felt the need to commission such a memo and allowed it to remain extant until 2004 is proof enough of widespread guilty knowledge on the part of both White House and DOJ officials.)
Nearly six years after they were first captured on foreign soil in the fall of 2001, 375 of these men are still imprisoned by the United States at Guantanamo Bay — and they have never had a hearing.