Former Attorney General John Ashcroft got a mixed reaction at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, where some libertarian-leaning attendees booed his anti-terrorism policies, arguing they had violated the privacy of American citizens.
“There’s nothing honorable about taking away peoples’ rights,” shouted a woman in the crowd. Ashcroft responded that his time was up and he thought that woman’s was, too.
President George W. Bush’s first Attorney General received a standing ovation for his speech, but at other points, Ashcroft was jeered. One crowd member called him a fascist.
Today, Ashcroft told The Huffington Post that it was right to Mirandize suspected terrorists arrested on American soil. “When you have a person in the criminal justice system, you Mirandize them,” Ashcroft said.
His defense of the criminal justice system went against the current line of attack by President Bush’s last Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, who has been critical of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to put the alleged Christmas Day airplane bomber in the civilian justice system rather than in military custody.
During his speech, Ashcroft said, “We have the duty, from time to time, to respond [to terrorists] with the mechanisms and capacities of war rather than put our heads in the sand and think that we’re not at war or fail to consider whether we’re at war because we’re so in love with the vocabulary of the civil-justice system.”
He also said that a “range of opportunities” need to be available to deal with terrorists. He did not rule out the use of civilian courts – which the DOJ under Ashcroft and other Bush administration leaders used frequently to prosecute alleged terrorists and terrorism-related offenses.
Ashcroft was presented with the “Defender of the Constitution Award” in the afternoon. The introduction from radio host Scott Hennen was a bit incongruous, given Ashcroft’s position on those arrested on American soil. “Sadly, elections have consequences, and now we have Eric Holder and Mirandizing terrorists,” he said.
Ashcroft later came out to conclude a debate moderated by Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice on the topic of whether security trumps freedom.
Panelists Bob Barr, a former U.S. attorney and Republican member of Congress from Georgia, and Jim Gilmore of the Free Congress Foundation represented the libertarian view. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Viet Dinh, a former Assistant Attorney General who served as an architect of the Patriot Act, defended the mechanisms in the name of security.
“We ought to be very careful, very careful about what we do in defense of this country,” said Ashcroft. “We ought to recognize that the courts of the United States do oversee us, and they have the final word, and I don’t think that there are any things in the United States Patriot Act that aren’t supervisable by the judicial branch of the United States.”
On his way out of the speech, Ashcroft posed for photos with members of the armed forces but ignored questions from reporters and declined to take a pamphlet offered to him by a man wearing an Obama Joker mask.
Video of Ashcroft’s speech is available at C-SPAN. It starts about 66 minutes in.
Main Justice’s Video of John Ashcroft’s speech after the debate is embedded below.