WASHINGTON, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- Former Attorney General John Ashcroft this week became the only Cabinet-level Bush official to attack the Sept. 11 Commission, writing in his memoirs it "seemed obsessed with trying to lay the blame for the terrorist attacks at the feet of the Bush administration, while virtually absolving the previous administration of responsibility."
Ashcroft also writes that the commission's hearings "were not so much about discovering the truth as they were about assessing blame and grandstanding," adding that they "degenerated into show trials."
GOP Commissioner Slade Gorton, a former senator from Washington State, told United Press International Thursday that he found the charges "extraordinary," recalling that President Bush had personally repudiated Ashcroft's tactics in his sparring with the commission.
"Most of the criticism (the commission received) was the exact opposite: that we didn't blame anyone," he said. "Our job was to write a factual account which readers could use to assess blame for themselves."
Ashcroft "may very well have been the worst witness we interviewed," he said, adding he was "very unresponsive and unhelpful."
"I was particularly disappointed," he added, "because I liked him when we were in the Senate together." Ashcroft served as GOP Senator for Missouri 1994-2000.
Ashcroft, who was traveling in Europe Thursday, did not respond to a request for comment. The White House and the Justice Department also declined comment on the row, the latest round in a series of increasingly bitter pre-election exchanges about the respective responsibilities of the Clinton and Bush administrations for failing to stop the Sept. 11 attacks.
In his memoir, "Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice," Ashcroft accuses the commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States, of trying to "stimulate media interest" in their hearings by leaking "juicy tidbits" beforehand. He writes that this was why he -- alone of all the serving and former senior officials who were witnesses for the commission -- did not provide them with advance copies of his testimony.
Gorton dismissed that explanation, saying "The reason, I'm convinced, is that he intended to -- and did -- use his testimony to launch a disingenuous and underhanded personal attack on a member of the commission."
At his April 13, 2003, appearance Ashcroft sprung on the commission a just-declassified top secret memo written by commission member and former Clinton administration Justice Department official Jamie Gorelick in 1995. The memo, Ashcroft said, was "the basic architecture" for the so-called wall, which he said was "the greatest structural cause for Sept. 11."
The wall -- in effect a hodge-podge of laws, court rulings and departmental regulations that had accreted over time -- had strictly separated intelligence from criminal investigations out of concern that prosecutors should not be allowed to use the much less restrictive rules about wiretapping and other kinds of surveillance that applied in intelligence operations to gather material for criminal cases, effectively end-running the Fourth Amendment.
The commission's report, however, concluded that the wall grew up during the 1980s, primarily as a response to a series of court rulings, and noted that a memo from Ashcroft's deputy Larry Thompson in August 2001 had effectively ratified the policy laid out by Gorelick in 1995.
The day prior to Ashcroft's testimony, the man who had been acting FBI director throughout the summer of 2001, Thomas Pickard, told the commission that Ashcroft had told him during a briefing covering counter-terrorism that "he did not want to hear about this anymore," and had refused a request for additional funding for FBI counter-terrorist activities.
Gorton believes that these facts account for Ashcroft's behavior. "He did have that (the Pickard allegations) and the Larry Thompson memo," said Gorton. "He had a great deal to answer for."
Nonetheless, in their recent account of their time on the commission, Chairman Thomas Kean and his deputy, Lee Hamilton, wrote that Ashcroft's testimony represented "the most aggressive challenge to the commission's credibility," noting that it set off a "steady drumbeat of criticism," including calls from senior House Republican leaders for Gorelick's resignation, and left them with "a huge political problem."
Two weeks later, on April 28, Ashcroft declassified more memos written by or commented upon by Gorelick, posting them on the Justice Department Web site, even though they had not previously been made available to the commission.
Calling the move "unprincipled," Gorton recalled that when commissioners met the following day with President Bush, "he personally told Gorelick he did not agree" with the decision to post the memos.
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