Smoking Out the Truth
For the first time since World War II, we're at war on two fronts.
In Iraq we're fighting against an army, and everywhere else we're
It's a full-time job, as Attorney General John Ashcroft has
"The war against terrorism is now the single, over-arching
priority of justice and law enforcement," Ashcroft said last year.
"Not just the men and women of the Department of Justice and the
Federal Bureau of Investigation, but of the 18,000 state and local
law-enforcement agencies as well."
That singleness of purpose has enabled us to break up at least four
domestic terrorist cells, obtain 108 convictions or guilty pleas
from terrorists, and deport 478 people linked to the Sept. 11
But not everyone at the Department of Justice shares Ashcroft's
vision that his department ought to make terrorism Job #1. Some
remain fixated on an older battle-namely, a $289 billion lawsuit
against tobacco companies.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit to enjoying an
occasional cigar and even a pipe, and I'll also admit that tobacco
companies supported Heritage last year to the tune of 0.26 percent
(that's right, one quarter of 1 percent!) of our income.
But it's not the 0.26 percent of our budget that makes me wonder
what's going on here. It's the mystery of why these lawsuits-first
filed in 1999 by the Clinton administration under claims that even
then-Attorney General Janet Reno suspected wouldn't hold up-are
As things stand now, a federal judge has tossed out a huge part of
the suit, saying government attorneys had misinterpreted two laws.
The only part that remains, claims related to alleged violations of
federal racketeering laws, also stands on shaky ground.
So why has Attorney General Ashcroft allowed the suit to go
forward? As a senator, he opposed it. In a letter to a constituent
in 2000, he wrote, "I am concerned that the … lawsuit could
set an unwise precedent leading to the federal government filing
lawsuits against countless other legal industries."
And even now, the Justice Department's civil division is handling
it without his supervision. An unidentified official told The
New York Times
he never even actually signed off on the latest
filing. Which raises the question: Did the Attorney General of the
United States tell his civil division attorneys to do this? If so,
why didn't he sign the filings? And if not, then why are they doing
With the possible exception of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield,
Ashcroft would seem the least likely member of President Bush's
cabinet to fall victim to what's known in Washington as "agency
capture." That's when an outsider is appointed to run an agency,
but the career employees there take advantage of their superior
knowledge of its inner workings to run the place as they please
without regard to his wishes or the wishes of the president he
The purpose of having a president appoint the members of his
cabinet is to enable him to put people who share their vision into
these jobs. People are policy-a principle, by the way, we defended
even when it was the Republicans who wanted to deny President
Clinton his fair share of political appointees. The whole principle
is thwarted if cabinet officials allow agency employees to do as
If Attorney General Ashcroft isn't going to supervise his
employees, he can expect them to meander from his priorities even
more. If he's changed his mind about tobacco suits, he needs to say
so. If he hasn't, which I suspect to be the case, he needs to order
these suits dropped and these attorneys to turn their attention
elsewhere. May I suggest the "over-arching priority" of fighting
Feulner is the president of The Heritage Foundation, a
Washington-based public policy research institute.