John Ashcroft Makes a Poor Mentor For Senator Jeff Sessions

Jeff Sessions


Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions has come under severe attack for his alleged entanglement in policies and ideas that his distractors say subvert established laws aimed at protecting the civil rights of Americans. 

To be sure, Sessions has had his moments: According to an article in the New York Times, Mr. Sessions has referred to the American Civil Liberties Union and the N.A.A.C.P. as “un-American” for “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people.” He has also said the Ku Klux Klan “was O.K. until I found out they smoked pot.” 

Whether such comments are tantamount to actual prejudice, or interesting exchanges, or remarks that were taken out of context, is fodder for debate. We think Trump has the right to fill positions with individuals who have supported his successful candidacy. But not all of Trump’s supporters deserve a pass.  

In the face of widespread criticism of Sessions as his Attorney General pick, Donald Trump has pointed to others who support Sessions. Former Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft is one of those people who are busy deflecting claims of racism and bigotry that have been hurled at Sessions.


We think Ashcroft is a weak character witness for Sessions where civil rights and fundamental guarantees of due process are concerned. We recognize that illegal immigrants should not be afforded the same rights under the Constitution as American citizens. We have also agreed with Trump that greater scrutiny of some immigrants is justified when they are attempting to enter the country. But we also think that all people detained or jailed in this country deserve to be treated humanely and equitably. We think Trump believes that too. 

The Times reports, “The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to decide whether high-ranking George W. Bush administration officials — including John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, and Robert S. Mueller III, the former F.B.I. Director — may be held liable for policies adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The federal circuit appeals court provided the following background for the lawsuit brought by the plaintiffs:

[The case began as a class action in 2002 filed by immigrants, most of them Muslim, over policies and practices that swept hundreds of people into the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn on immigration violations in the weeks after the attacks. The plaintiffs said they had been subjected to beatings, humiliating searches, and other abuses.

Ashcroft and Mueller 17 developed “a policy whereby any Muslim or Arab man encountered during the investigation of a tip received in the 9/11 terrorism investigation . . . and discovered to be a non‐citizen who had violated the terms of his visa, was arrested.”

Ashcroft also created the related “hold‐until‐cleared” policy, which mandated that individuals arrested in the wake of 9/11 not be released from “custody until [FBI Headquarters] affirmatively cleared them of terrorist ties.”

Within a week of 9/11, the FBI had received approximately 96,000 tips from civilians across the country. These tips varied significantly in quality and reliability. “Mueller [nonetheless] ordered that every one of these tips is investigated, even if they were implausible on their face.

Ultimately, 762 detainees were placed on the INS Custody List (the “INS List”) that then made them subject to Ashcroft’s hold‐until‐cleared policy.]

Many of the detainees had nothing to do with terroristic activities but were allegedly nevertheless beaten and otherwise treated horrifically. Ashcroft apparently sees nothing wrong with such methods. 

We will have to wait to see how the Supreme Court rules on these issues, but on the face of things, Ashcroft doesn’t come off as due process friendly. Donald Trump has pledged to treat all people fairly, and we believe he will. Ashcroft certainly would make a poor mentor for Sessions. 

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