Saturday, June 12, 2004

Ashcroft de-facto in contempt of Congress

The 2002 DOD legal memos arguing that the President had legal authority to authorize torture despite international treaties and US law are probably the smoking gun tying President Bush to the Iraqi Prison torture scandal. Understandably, Ashcroft doesn't want to turn the memos over to Congress. (In a separate development, the Washington Post is reporting the top US general in Iraq, General Sanchez, approved the use of torture on prisoners.)

Under the US Constitution, Congress has the power and duty to investigate the Administration, including subpoena individuals and documents under penalty of law. In testimony before Congress, Ashcroft was asked by the Republican chairman of the Senate committee under what legal or constitutional grounds he was refusing to turn these documents over to Congress. There are only two excuses --- Executive Privilege, or by citing a law written by Congress that specifically exempts certain classes of documents from being requested by Congress.

In a session that looked like the old "Crackling Oats" cereal commerical, Ashcroft spent many minutes huddling with legal advisors before making evasive answers to questions. He pointed declined both to provide the documents, and to provide a legal reason to Congress for declining the documents. He was then asked whether any of the documents were classified, upon which he again turned for some time to his advisors (while Senators made fun of him) before answering evasively that some documents might be classified, and then again they might not be classified.

At this point he was accused of being in Contempt of Congress, and Democrats urged the Republican Chair of the committee to pursue this further. (Since Ashcroft lacks the auto-immunity of the President, that would most likely involve having a judge declare Ashcroft in Contempt of Congress, and order him to turn over the documents under penalty of law, or, far less likely, having Congress proceed with impeachment hearings.)

At one point, Democratic Senator Biden growled at Ashcroft. The reason we signed these treaties, "in case anyone here" had forgotten, was to protect his son in the U.S. military from torture when captured by enemy forces.

Since the Republicans in Congress are going to be reluctant to bring down an Administration in a time of war, any proceedings against Ashcroft are likely to be slow.

However, contempt of Congress is in my view a very serious matter. The current bunch in the White House are, in my opinion, a very dangerous bunch (see my immediately earlier post on Jeb Bush's Florida), which makes action all the more serious.

If you are an American voter concerned with this issue, please write your congressional representatives. It's especially important that Republicans Senators hear from their constituents that they understand contempt of Congress is a very serious matter, and that their constituents are willing to give them the legal cover they need to ask the Administration tough questions.