John David Ashcroft (born May 9, 1942) is an American attorney and politician who served as the 79th U.S. Attorney General (2001–2005), in the George W. Bush Administration. He later founded The Ashcroft Group, a Washington D.C. lobbying firm.
Ashcroft previously served as Attorney General of Missouri (1976–1985), and as the 50th Governor of Missouri (1985–1993), having been elected for two consecutive terms in succession (a historical first for a Republican candidate in the state), and he also served as a U.S. Senator from Missouri (1995–2001). He had early appointments in Missouri state government and was mentored by John Danforth. He has written several books about political and moral issues.
Ashcroft was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Grace P. (née Larsen) and James Robert Ashcroft. The family later lived in Springfield, Missouri, where his father was a minister in an Assemblies of God congregation, served as president of Evangel University (1958–74), and jointly as President of Central Bible College (1958–63). His mother was a homemaker, whose parents had emigrated from Norway.
Ashcroft went to local schools in Springfield. He attended Yale College, where he was a member of Sigma Tau Gamma and the St. Elmo Society, graduating in 1964. He received a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Chicago School of Law (1967).
After law school, Ashcroft briefly taught Business Law and worked as an administrator at Southwest Missouri State University. During the Vietnam War, he avoided the draft by receiving six student draft deferments and one occupational deferment because of his teaching work.
In 1972, Ashcroft ran for a Congressional seat in southwest Missouri in the Republican primary election, narrowly losing to Gene Taylor. After the primary, Missouri Governor Kit Bond appointed Ashcroft to the office of State Auditor, which Bond had vacated when he became Governor.
In 1974, Ashcroft was narrowly defeated for election to that post by Jackson County County Executive George W. Lehr. He had argued that Ashcroft, who is not an accountant, was not qualified to be the State Auditor.
Missouri Attorney General John Danforth, who was then in his second term, hired Ashcroft as an Assistant state Attorney General. During his service, Ashcroft shared an office with Clarence Thomas, a future U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court Justice. (In 2001, Thomas administered Ashcroft's oath of office as U.S. Attorney General.)
In 1976, Danforth was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Ashcroft was elected to replace him as State Attorney General. In 1980, Ashcroft was re-elected with 64.5 percent of the vote, winning 96 of Missouri's 114 counties.
In 1983, Ashcroft wrote the leading amicus curiae brief in the U.S. Supreme Court Case Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., supporting the use of video cassette recorders for time shifting of television programs.
Ashcroft was elected governor in 1984 and re-elected in 1988, becoming the first (and, to date, the only) Republican in Missouri history elected to two consecutive terms.
In 1984, his opponent was the Democratic Lt. Governor Ken Rothman. The campaign was so negative on both sides that a reporter described the contest as "two alley cats [scrapping] over truth in advertising". In his campaign, Ashcroft contrasted his rural-base against an urban-based opponent from St. Louis. Democrats did not close ranks on primary night. The defeated candidate Mel Carnahan endorsed Rothman. In the end, Ashcroft won 57 percent of the vote and carried 106 counties—then the largest Republican gubernatorial victory in Missouri history.
In 1988, Ashcroft won by a larger margin over his Democratic opponent, Betty Cooper Hearnes, the wife of the former governor Warren Hearnes. Ashcroft received 64 percent of the vote in the general election—the largest landslide for governor in Missouri history since the U.S. Civil War.
During his second term, Ashcroft served as chairman of the National Governors Association (1991–92).
As governor, Ashcroft helped enact tougher standards and sentencing for gun crimes, increased funding for local law enforcement, and tougher standards and punishment for people bringing guns into schools. While Ashcroft was in office:
In 1994 Ashcroft was elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri, again succeeding John Danforth, who retired from the position. Ashcroft won 59.8% of the vote against Democratic Congressman Alan Wheat. As Senator:
In 1998, Ashcroft briefly considered running for U.S. President; but on January 5, 1999, he announced that he would not seek the presidency and would defend his Senate seat in the 2000 election.
In the Republican primary, Ashcroft defeated Marc Perkel. In the general election, Ashcroft faced a challenge from Governor Mel Carnahan.
In the midst of a tight race, Carnahan died in an airplane crash two weeks prior to the election. Ashcroft suspended all campaigning after the plane crash. Because of Missouri state election laws and the short time to election, Carnahan's name remained on the ballot. Lieutenant Governor Roger Wilson became governor upon Carnahan's death. Wilson said that should Carnahan be elected, he wanted to appoint his widow, Jean Carnahan, to serve in her husband's place; Mrs. Carnahan announced that, in accordance with her late husband's goal, she would serve in the Senate if voters elected his name. Following these developments, Ashcroft resumed campaigning.
Carnahan won the election 51% to 49%. No one had ever posthumously won election to the Senate, though voters had on at least three occasions chosen deceased candidates for the House of Representatives.
In December 2000, following his Senatorial defeat, Ashcroft was chosen for the position of U.S. attorney general by president-elect George W. Bush. He was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 58 to 42, with most Democratic senators voting against him, citing his prior opposition to using forced busing to achieve desegregation, and their opposition to Ashcroft's pro-life views.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Ashcroft was a key administration supporter of passage of the USA Patriot Act. One of its provisions, Section 215, allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to apply for an order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to require production of "any tangible thing" for an investigation. This provision was criticized by citizen and professional groups concerned about violations of privacy. Ashcroft referred to the American Library Association's opposition to Section 215 as "hysteria" in two separate speeches given in September 2003. While Attorney General, Ashcroft consistently denied that the FBI or any other law enforcement agency had used the Patriot Act to obtain library circulation records or those of retail sales. According to the sworn testimony of two FBI agents interviewed by the 9/11 Commission, Ashcroft ignored warnings of an imminent al-Qaida attack.
In 2002, under Ashcroft, curtains were installed blocking the Spirit of Justice statue in the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, which is of a woman wearing a toga-like dress with one breast revealed, from view during speeches. The curtains were first used on a rental basis during the administration of Dick Thornburgh. Justice officials long insisted that the curtains were put up to improve the room's use as a television backdrop and that Ashcroft had nothing to do with it. Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales, removed the curtains in June 2005.
In March 2004, the Justice Department under Ashcroft ruled that the Stellar Wind domestic intelligence program was illegal. The day after the ruling, Ashcroft became critically ill with acute pancreatitis. President Bush sent his White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card Jr. to Ashcroft's hospital bed. They wanted him to sign a document reversing the Justice Department's ruling. The semi-conscious Ashcroft refused to sign; Acting Attorney General James Comey and Jack Goldsmith, head of the Office of Legal Counsel for DOJ, were there to back him up.
Following accounts of the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq, one of the Torture memos was leaked to the press in June 2004. Jack Goldsmith, then head of the Office of Legal Counsel, had already withdrawn the Yoo memos and advised agencies not to rely on them. After Goldsmith was forced to resign because of his objections, Attorney General Ashcroft issued a one paragraph opinion re-authorizing the use of torture.
On November 9, 2004, following George W. Bush's re-election, Ashcroft announced his resignation, which took effect on February 3, 2005, after the Senate confirmed White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales as the next attorney general. Ashcroft said in his hand-written resignation letter, dated November 2, "The objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved."
In May 2005, Ashcroft laid the groundwork for a strategic consulting firm, The Ashcroft Group, LLC. He started operation in the fall of 2005 and as of March 2006 had twenty-one clients, turning down two for every one accepted. In 2005 year-end filings, Ashcroft's firm reported collecting $269,000, including $220,000 from Oracle Corporation, which won Department of Justice approval of a multibillion-dollar acquisition less than a month after hiring Ashcroft. The year-end filing represented, in some cases, only initial payments.
According to government filings, Oracle is one of five Ashcroft Group clients that seek help in selling data or software with security applications. Another client, Israel Aircraft Industries International, is competing with Seattle's Boeing Company to sell the government of South Korea a billion dollar airborne radar system.
In March 2006, the New York Times reported that Ashcroft had positioned himself as an "anti-Abramoff." In an hour-long interview, Ashcroft used the word integrity scores of times. In May 2006, based on conversations with members of Congress, key aides and lobbyists, The Hill magazine listed Ashcroft as one of the top 50 "hired guns" (lobbyists) that K Street had to offer.
In August 2006, the Washington Post reported that Ashcroft's firm had 30 clients, many of which made products or technology aimed at homeland security. The firm had not disclosed about a third of its client list on grounds of confidentiality. The firm also had equity stakes in eight client companies. It reported receiving $1.4 million in lobbying fees in the past six months, a small fraction of its total earnings.
After the proposed merger of Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc., Ashcroft offered the firm his consulting services, according to a spokesman for XM. The spokesman said XM declined Ashcroft's offer. Ashcroft was subsequently hired by the National Association of Broadcasters, which is strongly opposed to the merger.
In May 2011, Xe Services (formerly Blackwater International) named Ted Wright as CEO. Wright hired a new governance chief to oversee ethical and legal compliance and established a new board composed of former government officials, including former White House counsel Jack Quinn and Ashcroft. In December, 2011, Xe changed its name again, to Academi.
The firm also has a law firm under its umbrella, called the Ashcroft Law Firm. In December 2014, the law firm was hired by convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout to overturn his 2011 conviction.
Ashcroft's policy positions on privacy and civil liberties issues generally attracted reactions that were aligned with people's political backgrounds: conservatives were pleased and liberals had criticism. Critics included the American Civil Liberties Union and pro-choice groups.
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 covered with blue curtains, along with its male counterpart, the Majesty of Justice. Some speculated that Ashcroft thought that reporters were photographing him with the female statue in the background to make fun of his church's opposition to pornography. A Justice Department spokeswoman said that Ashcroft knew nothing of the decision to spend $8,000 for the curtains; a spokesman said the decision for permanent curtains was intended to save on the $2,000 per use rental costs of temporary curtains used for formal events.
In July 2002, Ashcroft proposed the creation of Operation TIPS, a domestic program in which workers and government employees would inform law enforcement agencies about suspicious behavior they encounter while performing their duties. The program was widely criticized from the beginning, with critics deriding the program as essentially a Domestic Informant Network along the lines of the East German Stasi or the Soviet KGB, and an encroachment upon the First and Fourth amendments. The United States Postal Service refused to be a party to it. Ashcroft defended the program as a necessary component of the ongoing War on Terrorism, but the proposal was eventually abandoned.
Ashcroft proposed a draft of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, legislation to expand the powers of the U.S. government to fight crime and terrorism, while simultaneously eliminating or curtailing judicial review of these powers for incidents related to domestic terrorism. The bill was leaked and posted to the Internet on February 7, 2003.
On May 26, 2004, Ashcroft held a news conference at which he said that intelligence from multiple sources indicated that the terrorist organization, al Qaeda, intended to attack the United States in the coming months. Critics suggested he was trying to distract attention from a drop in the approval ratings of President Bush, who was campaigning for re-election.
Groups supporting individual gun ownership praised Ashcroft's support through DOJ for the Second Amendment. He said specifically, "the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to keep and bear arms," expressing the position that the second amendment expresses a right. NRA president Sandra Froman said, "When these Bush Administration officials affirmed that the Second Amendment protects an individual right, the enemies of freedom were outraged because they fear the Second Amendment for what it really is– a shield against oppression."
In 2009 in Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco found that Ashcroft could be sued and held personally responsible for the wrongful detention of Abdullah al-Kidd. The American citizen was arrested at Dulles Airport in March 2003 on his way to Saudi Arabia for study. He was held for 15 days in maximum security in three states, and 13 months in supervised release, to be used as a material witness in the trial of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen. (The latter was acquitted of all charges of supporting terrorism). Al-Kidd was never charged and was not called as a witness in the Al-Hussayen case.)
The panels court described the government's assertions under the USA Patriot Act (2001) as "repugnant of the Constitution". In a detailed and at times passionate opinion, Judge Milan Smith likened allegations against al-Kidd as similar to the repressive practices of the British Crown that sparked the American Revolution. He wrote that the government asserts it can detain American citizens "not because there is evidence that they have committed a crime, but merely because the government wishes to investigate them for possible wrongdoing". He called it "a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history".
Abdullah Al-Kidd was held in a maximum security prison for 16 days, and in supervised release for 13 months. Al-Kidd was born Lavoni T. Kidd in 1973 in Wichita, Kansas. When he converted to Islam as a student at the University of Idaho, where he was a prominent football player, he changed his name. He asserts that Ashcroft violated his civil liberties as an American citizen, as he was treated like a terrorist and not allowed to consult an attorney. Al-Kidd's lawyers say Ashcroft, as US Attorney General, encouraged authorities after 9/11 to arrest potential suspects as material witnesses when they lacked probable cause to believe the suspects had committed a crime.
The US Supreme Court agreed on October 18, 2010 to hear the case. On May 31, 2011, the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court's decision, saying that al-Kidd could not personally sue Ashcroft, as he was protected by limited immunity as a government official. A majority of the justices held that al-Kidd could not have won his case on the merits, because Ashcroft did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.
Ashcroft has been a proponent of the War on Drugs. In a 2001 interview on Larry King Live, Ashcroft announced his intention to escalate efforts in this area. In 2003, Ashcroft and John B. Brown, the acting DEA Administrator, announced a series of indictments resulting from two nationwide investigations code-named Operation Pipe Dream and Operation Headhunter. The investigations targeted businesses selling drug paraphernalia, mostly for cannabis use, under a little-used statute (Title 21, Section 863(a) of the U.S. Code).
Tommy Chong, a counterculture icon, was one of those charged, for his part in financing and promoting Chong Glass/Nice Dreams, a company started by his son Paris. Of the 55 individuals charged as a result of the operations, only Chong was given a prison sentence after conviction (nine months in a federal prison, plus forfeiting $103,000 and a year of probation). The other 54 individuals were given fines and home detentions. While the DOJ denied that Chong was treated any differently from the other defendants, critics thought the government was trying to make an example of him. Chong's experience as a target of Ashcroft's sting operation is the subject of Josh Gilbert's feature-length documentary a/k/a Tommy Chong, which premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.
When Karl Rove was being questioned in 2005 by the FBI over the leak of a covert CIA agent's identity in the press (the Valerie Plame affair), Ashcroft was allegedly briefed about the investigation. The Democratic U.S. Representative John Conyers described this as a "stunning ethical breach that cries out for an immediate investigation." Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, asked, in a statement, for a formal investigation of the time between the start of Rove's investigation and John Ashcroft's recusal.
Since his service in government, Ashcroft has continued to oppose proposals for physician-assisted suicide, which some states have passed by referenda. When interviewed about it in 2012, when a case had reached the US Supreme Court after California voters had approved a law to permit it under regulated conditions, he said,
I certainly believe that people who are in pain should be helped and assisted in every way possible, that the drugs should be used to mitigate their pain but I believe the law of the United States of America which requires that drugs not be used except for legitimate health purposes.
In 2015, Human Rights Watch called for the investigation of Ashcroft "for conspiracy to torture as well as other crimes."
Ashcroft composed a paean titled "Let the Eagle Soar," which he sang at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in February 2002. Ashcroft has written and sung a number of other songs. He has collected these on compilation tapes, including In the Spirit of Life and Liberty and Gospel (Music) According to John. In 1998, he wrote a book with author Gary Thomas titled Lessons from a Father to His Son.
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