Then a senator, John Ashcroft accused Attorney General Janet Reno in 1998 of stonewalling when she didn't want to turn over prosecutors' memos to Congress. Now Reno's successor, Ashcroft is refusing to turn over similar memos.
The shift has left one of Ashcroft's fellow Republicans, House committee chairman Dan Burton, frustrated enough to accuse President Bush's attorney general of using a double standard.
"I am concerned that you have one standard for a Democrat attorney general and another standard for yourself," Burton wrote in a pointed letter to Ashcroft on Wednesday.
The Justice Department said it was refusing to turn over memos of decision-making by prosecutors because it wants to protect the privacy of people under investigation and ensure prosecutors are comfortable exchanging advice without fear their thoughts will be made public.
"The types of memoranda being sought by Chairman Burton contain advice to the attorney general and other senior officials and are among the most sensitive deliberative documents precisely because they pertain to prosecutorial decision-making," spokeswoman Susan Dryden said.
"The department takes very seriously its responsibility to protect the privacy interests of Americans who have been the subject of investigative scrutiny," she said.
Burton said Ashcroft's decision was a marked departure from past Justice Department practice and that the refusal to turn over the prosecutorial memos was a threat to Congress' right to oversee executive branch decisions. He threatened to call Ashcroft before his House Government Reform Committee to further explain.
"There is no valid legal or practical reason why these records should be withheld from the committee," Burton declared.
Burton also noted that Ashcroft, as a Republican senator, supported Burton's efforts to force Reno to turn over similar memos during the Clinton-era fund-raising investigations.
Those memos, among other things, detailed sharp disagreements between Reno and then-FBI Director Louis Freeh over the course of the fund-raising investigation.
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In a 1998 TV interview cited by Burton, Ashcroft said Reno was obligated to turn over the memos because Congress was entitled to them. "The attorney general has just learned from the president a technique we call stonewalling," Ashcroft charged at the time.
Burton seized on the TV interview. "Your position in 1998 was unambiguous and it was correct. Thus, I am at a loss as to why you would take a contradictory position just a few years later," he wrote.
Burton's committee has been seeking memos outlining the department's dcision not to prosecute a former White House official and a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent. It also has been refused access to a deliberative memo written by the most recent head of the task force that investigated Democratic fund-raising abuses.
Burton said Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff informed the committee this summer that the Justice Department no longer intends to share deliberative memos with the House committee.
Burton said the decision appeared to contradict Ashcroft's promise to make the Justice Department more accountable.
"It is hard to believe that public confidence in our investigators and prosecutors can be restored by an inflexible policy that prevents Congress from discharging a constitutionally mandated duty," Burton wrote.
Burton said while he held high regard for Ashcroft, "my personal confidence in you does not diminish the responsibility of this committee to conduct vigorous oversight of the Department of Justice."
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