Columbia, Mo. (Feb. 28, 2005) — During his tenure as U.S. Attorney General, John Ashcroft’s actions, especially those after Sept. 11, 2001, were criticized for infringing on the civil liberties of U.S. citizens, terror suspects and prisoners of war. However, Ashcroft was not the first attorney general to face a national security crisis.
According to Betty Winfield, journalism professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, 78 attorneys general have broadened the interpretation and enforcement of existing laws during domestic and foreign crises. Winfield has developed four models of attorneys general during wartime and found that Ashcroft fit two of these descriptions.
“John Ashcroft exemplified the relationship between government power and civil liberties,” Winfield said. “He either ignored criticism of his actions or labeled those who decried them as aiding terrorists, being unpatriotic and ‘living in a dream world.'”
According to Winfield, the four models of these attorneys general are coordinator, extreme aggressor, extreme aggressor-fall guy and leveler. The coordinator facilitates the President’s wishes no matter how constitutionally questionable those actions may be, Winfield said. They’re forceful during crises but are not closely identified with overt infringement of civil liberties. Thomas Gregory, Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general during WWI, fit this model.
The extreme aggressor, such as Mitchell Palmer, Wilson’s attorney general during the Red Scare years, becomes more ambitious and publicly initiates aggressive actions, Winfield said. The extreme aggressor-fall guy takes the heat publicly or in the courts, thus becoming the administration’s scapegoat, such as John Mitchell, President Nixon’s attorney general. The leveler, though, attempts to temper the administration’s drastic actions, quietly disagreeing with the President’s aggressive actions and trying to urge a different course. Francis Biddle, President Roosevelt’s attorney general during WWII, fit this model.
Winfield said Ashcroft’s actions reflected aspects of both an extreme aggressor and a coordinator. He took actions in his own interests by making dramatic pronouncements designed to gain media attention for the Department of Justice. He further tried to manipulate the media by timing pronouncements to distract attention from administrative blunders, according to Winfield.
“Past attorneys general have made enormous and costly errors by ignoring civil liberties,” Winfield said. “That Ashcroft shared characteristics of two of the four models should have been cause for concern. This concern remains today with our new attorney general.”
Winfield’s study was published recently in the Missouri Law Review.
Updated: April 2, 2020