The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, June 05, 2002  

Mueller to be Sacrified to Save Ashcroft

It was bound to happen to someone sooner or later. The Bush administration has chosen its fall guy. The apparent choice -- F.B.I. director Robert Mueller III -- is as unsurprising as it is misguided.

Joe Conason, in “Ashcroft’s Failures Deserve a Hearing” (New York Observer, June 5, 2002), makes a powerfully persuasive case that Attorney General John Ashcroft’s head deserves to roll first. “Attorney General John Ashcroft...,” concludes Conason, correctly, “may well be the single most culpable official still in government.”

The Bush administration has spent months assuring us that everything that could have been done to prevent the Al Qaeda-sponsored attacks on U.S. territory on Sept. 11, 2001, had been done. Moreover, key figures in the administration, most notably Vice President Richard Cheney, have thought nothing about questioning the motives and loyalty of those who dared suggest that we as a nation might benefit from a thorough examination of the miscommunication and inaction of a slew of federal agencies with national security responsibilities.

Ashcroft and his allies have three more whipping boys waiting in the wings. Former F.B.I. director Louis Freeh is an obvious target given that he was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, but he doesn't have a job to lose. Next up, then, C.I.A. director George Tenet. Tenet long has been a bête noire of the neoconservatives due to his opposition to a pardon for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Third in line is counterterrorist chief Richard Clarke.

In a remarkable coincidence, one that surely will be suppressed by the more partisan Republicans in coming weeks, all three men were vocal advocates of devoting greater resources and attention to suspected terrorist threats during the months leading up to Sept. 11.

In contrast, Ashcroft repeatedly demonstrated -- until as recently as Sept. 10, 2001 -- that monitoring and evaluating potential terrorist threats in the U.S. would not rank among his top priorities. Ashcroft’s agenda instead emphasized “the war on drugs,” pornography, and assisted suicides, hearkening back to the glory days of former Attorney General Edwin Meese, a stance that has won him the eternal loyalty of the far right. Ashcroft enjoys a wide range of political allies within and without the Bush administration; Mueller can barely compete.

Conason argues, convincingly, that those asking for Mueller’s head on a platter should reread the New York Times of Feb. 28, 2002, in which there are considerable details about Ashcroft’s first budget proposal. Ashcroft submitted that proposal to the White House on Sept. 10, 2001, on which date Mueller had been director of the F.B.I. for a grand total of seven days.

Ashcroft’s Sept. 10, 2001, budget proposal sought to increase spending on 68 programs under his purview, “none of which,” according to the Times, “directly involved counterterrorism.” Conason, summarizes portion of the original article, adds:

”[Ashcroft] had rejected the F.B.I.’s request for funding to hire hundreds of new field agents, translators and intelligence analysts to improve the bureau’s capacity to detect foreign terror threats. Moreover, among his proposed cuts was a reduction of $65 million in a Clinton program that made grants to state and local authorities for radios, decontamination garb and other counterterror preparedness measures.”

Conason wisely reminds us that between Freeh’s departure from the bureau on June 25 and Mueller’s Sept. 4 oath of office, Ashcroft was “in a real charge of domestic security while warnings were ignored or misplaced and opportunities to prevent tragedy were lost.”

Ashcroft, lacking the decency to answer the most basic questions about his misguided priorities, persistent inaction, and blatant disorganization, instead has proposed putting more power and responsibilities into the hands of a Justice Department that already has proved to be woefully incompetent. As Conason puts it, “In a bureaucracy that was already inundated with information that couldn’t be sorted into the categories of useful and useless, [Ashcroft] proposes to collect still more.”

Heads will roll. The wrong heads, but they will roll.

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