Of the many chums and political appointees that have passed through the George W. Bush administration's revolving door, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft practically disappeared from the news after he resigned in November 2004.
Unlike former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who was fired by Bush, or Richard Clarke, the former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism -- both of whom spilt the beans about the administration's shortcomings in best-selling books -- Ashcroft moved quietly on.
One of the Christian Right's most stalwart allies within the administration, Ashcroft hasn't written a book; hasn't barnstormed around the nation singing his self-penned paean to the United States, “Let the Eagle Soar” -- captured in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11; and he isn't going around throwing protective curtains over nude statues.
(In January 2002, the partially nude female statue of the “Spirit of Justice,” which stands in the Great Hall of the Justice Department, where Ashcroft held press conferences, was intentionally covered with blue curtains, along with its male counterpart, the “Majesty of Law.”)
Instead, the former AG has founded a lobbying firm which, in a very short time, has managed to rake in a fair amount of money representing an assortment of corporate clients, several of whom stand to reap great profits from the president's war on terrorism.
Five years ago, after his nomination was narrowly sent to the floor of the Senate by a 10-8 vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee and then confirmed by a 58-42 vote, Ashcroft began a controversial run as attorney general.
As the major pitchman for the Patriot Act and Operation Tips, he was no friend of civil libertarians. The Patriot Act (now being reconsidered as the Patriot Act II) allowed police and intelligence agencies greater latitude to conduct secret surveillance and gather information on people even if they were not alleged to be terrorists.
Ashcroft's short-lived project, dubbed Operation Tips, was designed to get workers and government employees to inform the government of any suspicious activities they encountered while performing their duties.
His Justice Department was also responsible for the “torture memos” which, as Lance Morrow wrote in a recent review of two new collections of essays on torture in the New York Times Book Review, gave “legal cover for getting rough, for ‘taking the gloves off’ in America's war on terror.”
In early January, the former attorney general reappeared in several news stories related to his new lobbying outfit, The Ashcroft Group, LLC. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Less than three months after registering as a lobbyist ... Ashcroft has banked at least $269,000 from just four clients and appears to be developing a practice centered on firms that want to capitalize on a government demand for homeland security technology that boomed under sometimes controversial policies he promoted while in office.”
Ashcroft's firm received over $200,000 from the San Francisco, California-based Oracle Corp., one of the world's largest software companies, which the Tribune reported, “won justice department approval of a multibillion acquisition less than a month after hiring Ashcroft in October.”
The Ashcroft Group is also working with ChoicePoint, “a data broker that sells credit reports and other personal information to the FBI and other federal agencies.” Another client, LTU Technologies Inc., is a Washington and Paris-based “maker of software for analysing large batches of video and other visual images.”
According to The Hill's Jonathan E. Kaplan, in late December, Ashcroft's company was hired by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), a major Israeli aerospace company, to help secure Washington's approval to sell a weapons system to the South Korean Air Force.
“The South Koreans are choosing between an early-warning radar system built by ... IAI and a similar, more expensive system built by Chicago-based Boeing Co. The radar systems enhance an air force's ability to track enemy fighter jets during combat,” The Hill reported.
Any country wanting to resell U.S. military technology must receive approval from the Department of State's Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, an agency, Kaplan pointed out, that “can also consult with the Pentagon on whether to issue an export license.”
“While Ashcroft's lobbying is within government rules for former officials,” the Chicago Tribune noted, “it is nonetheless a departure from the practice of attorneys general for at least the last 30 years.”
Other former AGs have “counseled corporate clients or perhaps even lobbied in a specific case as part of law firm business, [but] Ashcroft is the first in recent memory to open a lobbying firm.”
Attorneys general have tended to avoid the role of “a hired gun selling his connections,” Charles Tiefer, a former deputy general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and author of “Veering Right, How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes,” pointed out.
“The attorney general is very much supposed to embody the pure rule of law like the Department of Justice's statue of “Blind Justice” and he's not expected afterwards to cloak with the mantle of his former office a bunch of greedy interests,” said Tiefer, who teaches law at the University of Baltimore.
Edwin Meese, who served President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) as the nation's 75th attorney general, is currently part of the senior management team at the Heritage Foundation -- one of the nation's premier right-wing think tanks -- where he directs its Center for Legal and Juridical Studies.
President Richard Nixon's former AG, John Mitchell, wound up in a stickier situation. He was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice as part of the Watergate scandal, and served 19 months of a two-and-a-half to eight-year prison sentence.
In this period, when lobbying Congress brings to mind the tainted work of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said he was surprised Ashcroft “moved this quickly into lobbying.”
Sen. Durbin noted that he couldn't “think of another attorney general who has done this. I think it does raise concerns about elected officials. If there is a perception we're not in this for public service but for profit, I think it really could raise questions about our credibility.”
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in addition to the lobbying, Ashcroft teaches law at the Rev. Pat Robertson's Regent University, is active with the Republican Party, and gives speeches -- from Europe to Las Vegas -- at $75,000 a piece.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
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