Former Attorney General John Ashcroft told lawmakers Thursday that he fully embraced pushing forward an aggressive counterterrorism policy during his tenure, but that overturning some initial Justice Department legal guidance was necessary after later review.
"The administration's overriding goal, which I fully embraced, was to do everything within its power and within the limits of the law — I repeat within the limits of the law — to keep this country safe from terrorist attack," he told the House Judiciary Committee.
Ashcroft said that's why he initially approved now-controversial legal guidance on interrogation put forth by former DOJ Office of Legal Counsel official John Yoo in an August 2002 memo.
"I was made aware that a legal opinion relating to interrogation of al Qaeda detainees was being prepared by OLC [the Office of Legal Counsel]," Ashcroft said. "I was briefed on the general contours of the opinion's substantive analysis and on its conclusions, and that approved of its issuance."
Ashcroft testified that later, once DOJ's Jack Goldsmith became the head of the office of Legal Counsel, Justice Department officials expressed concerns to him about alleged flaws in Yoo's analysis and how closely Yoo was aligned with the White House.
"It became apparent in the further examination of those opinions, when made in another timeframe, that there were matters of concerns that were brought to my opinion. It was not a hard decision for me," Ashcroft said.
"Any time the department can improve what we can, we owe it to the president and we owe it to ourselves," he added.
Ashcroft fully defended the tactics he authorized and supported in the weeks and years after the 9/11 attacks, telling the committee that he didn't support torture because it is illegal and "the outcome of a product of torture doesn't justify it."
Ashcroft was asked why Yoo was passed over to head the Office of Legal Counsel. Noting his close ties to the White House, including then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, Ashcroft acknowledged "individuals in the department expressed concern about maintaining the independence of the department."
But Ashcroft did defend harsh interrogation methods, saying, "I know specific attacks were disrupted."
"The value of the interrogation was for prevention," he said. "The exclusive evidence of prevention was not to bring evidence to a court but to prevent harm to the country."
At times, Ashcroft was evasive, and he claimed executive privilege numerous times. Asked when he became aware of use of the simulated drowning tactic called waterboarding, Ashcroft said, "I'm not aware of when I learned that information."
Asked by Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., if he discussed Yoo's memo with President Bush, Ashcroft responded sharply, "I don't know, and if I did I wouldn't tell you."
Sanchez continued to press Ashcroft about meetings at the White House to which Ashcroft responded in rote fashion, "My communications with the president are privileged communications."
Ashcroft was asked by several members about an encounter in March 2004, when then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller scrambled to Ashcroft's hospital bedside to thwart a visit by Gonzales, who was seeking authorization for a controversial terror surveillance program. Ashcroft was at the time recovering in the intensive care unit at a Washington hospital following surgery.
Pressed by Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, about the circumstances surrounding the visit by Gonzales and then White House chief of staff Andy Card, Ashcroft said, "Discussions with members of the administration are private. … I was in the ICU, I hadn't eaten in a week. ... I may have been thirsty and grumpy."
Comey described the incident to a Congressional panel last year, and Mueller later testified that he did not dispute Comey's account.
Asked if his failure to authorize the NSA warrantless wiretapping program and a massive data mining program ultimately led to his departure from the administration, Ashcroft said, "My departure was on my own, it was voluntary."