Ashcroft’s Failures Deserve a Hearing

There may come a time to boot Robert Mueller III as F.B.I. director, if Congressional and other investigations eventually prove

There may come a time to boot Robert Mueller III as F.B.I. director, if Congressional and other investigations eventually prove that his removal is warranted. For now, he is in the difficult position of both defending and reforming an agency left in exceptionally poor condition by Louis Freeh, the former director whose amazing immunity from public criticism soon seems likely to end. Although the current director is responsible for the bureaucratic butt-covering since last September’s disaster, he doesn’t deserve blame for the interagency bungling that occurred before his watch began.

Yet in Washington’s ritualistic bloodletting style, Mr. Mueller is plainly being set up for sacrifice. The Wall Street Journal editorial page calls upon him to resign; right-wing pundit Robert Novak reports that “he is becoming a candidate for the first head to roll.” This is premature and patently unfair-and ill-advised at a time when national law enforcement is already in turmoil.

Mr. Mueller may well deserve harsh scrutiny, but there are other Bush appointees who merit such scrutiny even more, and who should likewise be interrogated sharply by Congress and the press. At the top of the list is Mr. Mueller’s immediate superior, Attorney General John Ashcroft, who may well be the single most culpable official still in government.

The very least that can be said for Mr. Freeh, after all, is that like other Clinton administration officials held over to serve the new President, he demonstrated deep concern about a probable terrorist attack on American soil. According to most accounts of the months and years preceding Sept. 11, those other worriers included C.I.A. director George Tenet and counterterrorist chief Richard Clarke, whose warnings created no sense of urgency as the White House pursued such irrelevant obsessions as missile defense.

From what we know of Mr. Ashcroft’s conduct since he assumed office last year, he shrugged off the terrorist threat in favor of his own small-time agenda. He wanted to prosecute people in California who provide marijuana to cancer patients. He wanted to prosecute doctors in Oregon who assist the suicides of terminally ill patients. He wanted to prosecute pornographers.

No doubt he wanted to stop terrorists, too, but that particular item got priority only when he appeared before Congress or made speeches-not when he allocated funds or issued directives within the Justice Department. He can’t say he wasn’t warned. As Newsweek reported two weeks ago, Mr. Freeh tried to convince him that additional resources and action were needed to fight terrorism during a conference at the F.B.I. facility in Quantico, Va., but Mr. Ashcroft brushed him off.

Those who are now demanding the head of Mr. Mueller should go back and reread The New York Times ‘ stunning Feb. 28 story about Mr. Ashcroft’s first budget, which was submitted to the White House the day before the Twin Towers fell. (At that point, the F.B.I. director had been in office for less than a week.)

As of Sept. 10, 2001, the Attorney General’s final budget request for the coming fiscal year asked to increase spending on 68 programs, “none of which directly involved counterterrorism.” He had rejected the F.B.I.’s request for funding to hire hundreds of new field agents, translators and intelligence analysts to improve the bureau’s capacity to detect foreign terror threats. Moreover, among his proposed cuts was a reduction of $65 million in a Clinton program that made grants to state and local authorities for radios, decontamination garb and other counterterror preparedness measures.

A former F.B.I. official told The Times back in February that it was Mr. Ashcroft’s attitude that “really undermined a lot of effort to change the culture and change the mindset” of the bureau. It should be recalled, too, that during the crucial months leading up to the Al Qaeda attack, Mr. Freeh had quit and Mr. Mueller had not yet arrived. In a real sense, Mr. Ashcroft was in charge of domestic security while warnings were ignored or misplaced and opportunities to prevent tragedy were lost.

Now the Attorney General has rewarded his own errors, and those of the agencies under his command, with greatly expanded power to conduct surveillance on the rest of us. Although there’s no reason to believe that the 1976 restrictions on domestic political spying hindered the apprehension of the Al Qaeda killers, such curtailments of civil liberty are what Mr. Ashcroft prescribes for the problem he formerly ignored. In a bureaucracy that was already inundated with information that couldn’t be sorted into the categories of useful and useless, he proposes to collect still more.

Last year, Mr. Ashcroft challenged the patriotism of anyone who dared question his incursions on traditional freedoms, and his critics quickly backed down. Now it is he who should be challenged, to explain his past approach to terrorism and to justify his present assaults on liberty. And he should not be allowed to hide his answers behind closed doors.

Ashcroft’s Failures Deserve a Hearing