Attorney General Eric Holder presided over an emotional reunion of George W. Bush-era Justice Department leaders at a ceremony in Washington marking the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Solicitor General Ted Olson – whose wife, Barbara, was aboard Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon – shared the stage with Holder, Deputy Attorney General James Cole and 9/11 victim family’s advocates for a day of commemoration that began with a moment of silence for employees at Justice Department headquarters in Washington.
“This was a real-life nightmare,” Olson told the audience. “I won’t even try to put emotion into words.” Ashcroft did not speak, but Holder praised him for having “led the department with distinction for four years.”
The stage tableau was symbolic of the promise that 9/11 showed by uniting Americans, defeating briefly the partisanship and stereotyping that has become so corrosive in Washington.
Olson argued the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case in 2000 that ended the Florida recount and made George W. Bush president, but in later years revealed unexpected positions including support of gay marriage. Ashcroft, an evangelical Christian, was once considered among the most far-right of lawmakers. But he later became something of a constitutional hero when it was revealed that as Attorney General, he’d stood up against White House pressure to approve an illegal domestic surveillance technique while gravely ill in a hospital bed.
Also on stage were two victim family members: Carie Lemack, cofounder of the Global Survivors Network whose mother was on the flight that hit the North Tower, and retired Army Maj. Abraham Scott, whose wife perished at the Pentagon. Both gave moving speeches paying tribute to their perished loved ones and to the DOJ for supporting victims’ families. They also praised the department for allowing them to witness the trial of convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in Alexandria, Va.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole made opening and closing remarks.
Holder, a native of Queens, recalled his high school years in lower Manhattan watching the World Trade Center “buildings go up, story by story, to become the iconic symbol New York City’s skyline.” He added: “None of us will ever forget where we were on that beautiful, autumn morning,” as they watched “images of the World Trade Center Twin Towers crumbling to the ground.”
Other former Bush administration DOJ officials in the audience included former Deputy Attorneys General Larry Thompson and Paul McNulty, and the son-in-law of former Vice President Dick Cheney, former acting Associate Attorney General Phil Perry.
Notably absent: John Yoo, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyer widely perceived to have done the controversial bidding of Cheney by writing the legal opinions that authorized the use of torture and other extra-constitutional measures. Yoo, now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week that the Bush administration tactics helped keep the country safe over the last decade.
Samuel Knight contributed to this report.