Ashcroft Rapped Over Oversight

Posted June 6, 2003 at 5:39pm

With Attorney General John Ashcroft seeking broader power to pursue terror suspects, Republicans and Democrats on both the House and Senate Judiciary committees are calling on their respective chairmen to step up oversight of what many see as the Justice Department’s questionable conduct in stopping, detaining and rooting out suspected terrorists on U.S. soil.

Many lawmakers said Ashcroft continues to be guarded or unresponsive when presented with questions from Congress about the department’s use of the broad new surveillance and investigative powers given to them by the post-Sept. 11, 2001, USA Patriot Act, despite recent reports that have raised questions about the treatment of immigrant detainees, the increased use of wiretap surveillance, and the use of Patriot Act provisions for non-terrorist crimes.

“It’s like pulling teeth to get answers,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been an outspoken critic of the Justice Department. “I think part of the problem is that Congress doesn’t do enough oversight.”

Grassley, along with Senate Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and panel member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), have written letters to Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on a couple of occasions asking for more oversight hearings — with little success, they said.

Hatch has, however, agreed to the trio’s request to hold a hearing on last week’s revelation by the Justice Department inspector general that the civil rights of some immigrants detained in post-Sept. 11 terrorist probes may have been violated.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.), who have both been troubled by what they see as Ashcroft’s and other department officials’ lack of full transparency on the use of the Patriot Act, reached a tentative agreement with Ashcroft last week to step up oversight of the department in coming months.

Sensenbrenner told Ashcroft at a hearing Thursday that he was pleased Congress and the department were beginning to communicate directly, rather than through the media.

“Let me say that I think it is to the benefit of everybody to deal with these issues publicly rather than through dueling press releases, sound bites and things like that,” the chairman said. “And I can tell you, Mr. Attorney General, that this will give the Justice Department perhaps a better opportunity to present its side of the argument than maybe has been going on in the past.”

Conyers indicated that the still-evolving agreement would allow House Judiciary to focus in on specific Justice programs and get more response from the department.

Leahy complained that a similar agreement was unlikely for Senate Judiciary, given what he called Hatch’s reticence to conduct oversight hearings.

“He’s been asked by me, Senator Specter and Senator Grassley to have real oversight [of Justice],” Leahy said of Hatch. “I hope someday we’ll have it.”

Both Leahy and Specter complained that Hatch repeatedly denied or put off their requests for oversight hearings, including a call for a hearing into recent allegations that the FBI’s investigations of suspected Chinese spies was compromised by two FBI agents’ romantic involvement with another alleged Chinese spy.

Though he did not criticize Hatch directly, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also noted the lack of full committee oversight action.

“Our subcommittees do a better job of oversight of the Department of Justice than the full committee does,” said Sessions, who chairs Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on oversight and the courts.

Senate GOP Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a member of the Judiciary panel, defended Hatch and Ashcroft.

“I am not convinced that we are somehow missing the boat by not having a lot more oversight hearings,” said Kyl, who noted that his requests to Ashcroft have occasionally been “slow, but it’s never been a reluctance to cooperate.”

Kyl acknowledged, however, that Ashcroft would do well to spend more time on Capitol Hill.

Indeed, Members on both sides of the Capitol complain that Ashcroft has canceled scheduled appearances, tried to set two-hour time limits on his testimony, and generally been uncooperative with the Judiciary panels.

Though Ashcroft did appear before the House panel Thursday, committee members complained that it had been nearly 20 months since the last time he had testified to the committee. He was scheduled to come before the panel last July, but the hearing was canceled when Ashcroft failed to get his testimony to the committee on time, according to House Judiciary aides.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has had slightly more luck with Ashcroft. He last testified before it in March. Before that, he appeared in July 2002.

Ashcroft has appeared before the two committees a total of only three times since the beginning of 2002. In 2001, he testified before Senate Judiciary four times, including at his confirmation hearing, and twice before House Judiciary.

“Some of these guys would have him up here every day,” said Hatch. “The attorney general is always on the griddle, and some people want to embarrass him every chance they can. I don’t think we should use the attorney general so we can get the media to come.”

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said Ashcroft and other Justice officials have responded to every Congressional request for information or hearings.

In the 107th Congress alone, Corallo said, “We replied to over 7,000 letters from Members of Congress.

“[Staffers] testified at 247 hearings. We answered over 900 questions for the record following hearings,” Corallo added. “We issued 102 views on legislation at the request of Congress. And we’ve literally lost count on the hundreds of briefings that department personnel have given to Members of Congress and staff.”

Corallo acknowledged that Ashcroft had to cancel some Congressional appearances “when law-enforcement situations forced us to cancel,” and he noted that Ashcroft was busy fighting the war on terrorism, which he called “the largest law-enforcement investigation in United States history.”

Still, Ashcroft’s official appearances before his department’s authorizing committees pale in comparison to two other war on terrorism managers — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Rumsfeld has testified before the Senate and House Armed Services panels a total of 10 times since the beginning of 2002 and appeared informally nearly every week on Capitol Hill to give Members classified briefings on the run-up to and during this year’s war in Iraq.

Powell has appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations and House International Relations panels eight times since the beginning of 2002 and has also given numerous classified briefings to large groups of Members.

“I would think that he’s probably due for another trip,” said Sessions. “Everybody can use a little oversight.”

Senators, particularly Specter, have also complained that Ashcroft has not responded to letters seeking information on immigrant detainees, among other things.

In July 2002, Specter actually challenged Ashcroft during a hearing to explain why, as a former Senator from Missouri who sat on the Judiciary panel, he was so reluctant to share information with former colleagues.

“When you sat next to me on this dais a couple of years ago, I think it is accurate to say that you shared my frustration about getting responses from the attorney general,” Specter said at the time. “How do we communicate with you? And are you really too busy to respond?”

Ashcroft responded at the time that he was “not too busy to communicate, and I will do a better job.”

Asked recently if Ashcroft had lived up to his promise nearly a year ago, Specter said, “Nothing has improved since last summer. … It’s like a big black hole.”