It's hard to know what Republicans thought they had to gain by trotting out John Ashcroft during a break in Samuel Alito's confirmation hearing today: Anybody who might be swayed by Ashcroft's endorsement of the nominee is surely in his camp already.
So it's not surprising that the reporters gathered outside the hearing room weren't all that interested in asking Ashcroft to expound on his view that America is lucky to have a judicial nominee like Alito. They were interested, however, in hearing what Ashcroft had to say about George W. Bush's program of warrantless spying on American citizens. The president has said that administration attorneys repeatedly vetted and approved the spying program, but the New York Times says that one senior Justice Department attorney objected to the program, prompting White House Chief of Staff Andy Card to seek approval from Ashcroft while he was in the intensive-care unit at George Washington University Hospital.
It's not clear what Ashcroft told Card about the spying program that day, and it's still not clear what Ashcroft thinks about it now. Asked about it today, the former attorney general said: "I believe that there are times when the clear authority of the president, in line with the Constitution and in line with the authorization to use force, is to conduct surveillances in the national interest to preserve and protect our national security." But then he added: "This is not to say that there are no limits on a president. The president is limited by the Constitution just as are members of the Congress and members of the judiciary. But there are clear responsibilities and duties of the president to act to secure the nation and some of those include surveillances. I am not going to talk about particular surveillance programs. I will not talk about programs which I believe are necessary to our defense."