Meredith Vieira Questions John Ashcroft About 'Moral Basis' of War On Terrorism

Former attorney general John Ashcroft was invited on this morning's Today show to promote his book Never Again but he found himself talking about somebody else's book instead. In the 8:30 half hour NBC's Meredith Vieira assaulted Ashcroft with excerpts from Bob Woodward's latest book and even went on to question Ashcroft about the "moral basis of the war on terrorism," and asserted, "Many people feel that our civil liberties have been chipped away bit by bit since, since 9/11."

Teasing the segment Matt Lauer called Ashcroft, "a very controversial figure," and in her opening Vieira noted he was "a lightning rod for criticism." Hmm, I wonder how many times Today referred to Janet Reno in those terms?

Squeezing out at least one more segment spawned by Woodward's book Vieira's first four questions were based on claims from State of Denial. The following is a full transcript of the interview on the October 3rd edition of the Today show:

Meredith Vieira: "When John Ashcroft served as President Bush's attorney general he was known for his tough approach to fighting terrorism in the months after 9/11 but he was also a lightning rod for criticism. Now he's written a book about his years in Washington titled, Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice. Mr. Ashcroft, good morning to you, thanks for joining us."

John Ashcroft: "Well it's my pleasure."

Vieira: "Before we talk about your book I want to talk about a meeting that Bob Woodward reports in his book between then CIA Director George Tenet and then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Woodward writes that Tenet met with Rice on July 10th, 2001 and that Tenet warned Rice of an impending al Qaeda threat. Secretary Rice has since said that there was a meeting but there was no dire warning given. Do you know anything about this meeting and were you ever warned about al Qaeda in the summer leading up to 9/11?"

Ashcroft: "Well the summer was full of warnings about al Qaeda but they, at least, for me, they focused on things like the Cole bombing, Dar es Salaam, the embassy bombings and that kind of event. As a matter of fact I sort of pushed people back when they were talking to me and said, now what are we talking about here? Where's the evidence? What's, what's the nature of the threat? And they, they described it and I said is there any evidence, at least this is the inquiry I would make that there's a problem here in the United States. And people told me, 'no,' that this is, all the evidence points to overseas. Now if there had been such a meeting that-"

Vieira: "Had taken place."

Ashcroft: "-had taken place with Ms. Rice and she had been told that there was a domestic threat, that that was, you know, and that was the feature of the meeting I'm surprised that they wouldn't have such a briefing for the attorney general as well."

Vieira: "So you never heard of any domestic threat impending, at all?"

Ashcroft: "There was a lot of talk about threats, generally of the kind we had endured before but when you asked about is there any information that, any evidence, that the threat would be domestic the answer just simply was no."

[On screen graphic: "Justice For All? Ashcroft On Securing America"]

Vieira: "Woodward describes also a president who seems disengaged when it comes to talking about any negative side to the war on terror. Is that the George Bush that you remember?"

Ashcroft: "No."

Vieira: "Somebody who would not want to hear bad news?"

Ashcroft: "Well we had to give him bad news on more than one occasion and frankly in the book I talk about some of those occasions. I say that the President said yes and was pretty upset by the bad news but asked us to move forward and correct it. So that I don't see the President as someone who doesn't come to grips with bad news but he doesn't-"

Vieira: "You don't see the President as someone who would've knowingly lied to the American public about the war?"

Ashcroft: "Oh I certainly don't believe the President would knowingly lie to the American people. He would ask questions about specific terrorist suspects around the country, about cells in one part of the nation or another. And I, it would be my job to tell him what we had been able to do and-"

Vieira: "And what you hadn't."

Ashcroft: "-and what we hadn't been able to do."

Vieira: "I want to ask you about your book, Never Again, because the title, you say, comes from something that President Bush said to you on September, September 12th, 2001. What did he say to you and how did it change the way you looked at yourself and the Justice Department and your priorities?"

Ashcroft: "Well he just turned in one of those very small meetings in the, literally the hours after 9/11 and he said, 'Don't ever let this happen again.' Well the truth of the matter is the Justice Department has always been sort of a backward looking prosecution oriented institution. We tell people, in court, what happened and who was responsible. And when he said, 'Don't ever let this happen again,' it meant that yeah you're gonna continue to be a prosecutor but you've got to start looking forward."

Vieira: "In the years that you were attorney general did you ever doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism?"

Ashcroft: "I never doubted the moral basis and I don't think the Patriot Act is as controversial as people want to make it. When it came up after five years of debate for reenactment 88 senators voted for it. You can't get 88 senators to agree that today is Tuesday."

Vieira: "But many people feel that our civil liberties have been chipped away bit by bit since, since 9/11."

Ashcroft: "Well I think that's an unfortunate feeling. I think what's happened is that our civil liberties have been secured. We are less likely to be attacked."

Vieira: "I gotta ask you before we go, when I said that I'd be interviewing today a few friends of mine said you gotta ask him about those statues that he covered up, the naked statues. Why did he do that and does he ever regret that he did it?"

Ashcroft: "Well, you know, there was a drape installed in the Justice Department not on a statue. It divided a room. There are literally, I don't know, there are dozens of statues around the department. They are in various states of, of being revealed. They, they were not, in any way, adjusted and the individuals who decided that we would be better served in setting with a drape in that context for television viewing and things like that did it on their own. I didn't make the decision. I don't-"

Vieira: "So you didn't want to cover up the statues?"

Ashcroft: "I didn't, I just wasn't involved in things like that. I didn't, you know, fortunately for me I didn't have to empty the wastebaskets every morning, I didn't sweep out the building and I didn't make decisions about where we had curtains and didn't have them."

Vieira: "John Ashcroft the book is Never Again. Thank you so much for joining us."

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.