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WASHINGTON — Since taking the reins of the Justice Department in February 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft has relied heavily on a cadre of close advisers to monitor the department’s wide-ranging activities and to flag issues that need his consideration. Unlike other attorneys general who held daily or weekly meetings with the heads of DOJ units and agencies, Ashcroft only rarely sits down face to face with members of the department’s senior management. Instead, most matters coming to his attention are filtered through longtime Chief of Staff David Ayres and Deputy Chief of Staff David Israelite — known at Main Justice simply as “the Davids.” As a result, the attorney general’s immediate staff wields unusual influence over policy decisions. Interviews with 15 current and former Bush administration officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggest that access to the attorney general is tightly controlled by political advisers who at times seem to run the department more like the office of a legislator seeking re-election than an executive branch agency. What’s more, Ashcroft has brought on a new layer of aides in recent months to oversee various aspects of the department’s day-to-day business. To some, the expansion of the AG’s staff seems to further limit the number of people reporting directly to Ashcroft and to centralize the flow of information through Ayres and Israelite. On Oct. 3, the White House tapped James Comey Jr., U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, to be the new deputy AG — the Justice Department’s critical No. 2 post. But as the 42-year-old Comey learns his way around the department, he may find himself vying with Ashcroft’s inner circle of advisers for authority. While it comes as no big surprise that Ashcroft — a two-term Missouri governor and former U.S. senator — has taken a relatively hands-off approach to running the Justice Department, some find his leadership style problematic. “Frequently, when senior people would go in and ask to speak with the attorney general one-on-one about an issue, they would be shut down. You can never talk to this attorney general one-on-one,” says a former Justice Department official. “Unfortunately what that does is discourage a frank and open discussion of issues that would lead to better decisions.” But the AG’s supporters defend Ashcroft’s management style, calling it “efficient” and “responsible” — particularly in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. “There’s a chief of staff for a reason. Somebody has to keep the office running in a way that maximizes the attorney general’s time and energy on the department’s top priorities,” says Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo. “As someone who has been in several high-level meetings and watched, there is a very, very thorough process that goes into every decision that is made here.” Indeed, those who have worked under Ashcroft say that high-priority issues such as terrorism nearly always get his attention, while less urgent matters can be handled by either the deputy AG or the associate attorney general, who directly oversees the department’s major litigating sections. “Ninety-nine percent of [our] issues get resolved in the associate attorney general’s office,” says Thomas Sansonetti, chief of the Environmental and Natural Resources Division. “You tend to learn over time which things are so red-hot you need to call straight up to the AG.” Michael Chertoff, a judge on the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and former chief of the Criminal Division, says, “There was never a time I needed to see the attorney general that I didn’t get up to see him very quickly.” Ayres and Israelite could not be reached for comment last week. According to Corallo, members of the attorney general’s staff are not responding to media inquiries because of the “highly sensitive” ongoing criminal investigation into the alleged administration leak of the identity of an officer with the Central Intelligence Agency. THE INNER SANCTUM Over the past six months, a steady stream of experienced and outspoken DOJ officials have departed the administration, including Chertoff, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, Office of Legal Policy guru Viet Dinh, and Civil Rights Division head Ralph Boyd Jr. At the same time, a less visible transformation has taken place within Ashcroft’s inner circle. In July, longtime counselor Adam Ciongoli — who handled a broad range of issues and had a close personal relationship with Ashcroft — stepped down to accept a post in the general counsel’s office of AOL Time Warner. The new office structure has four counsel with more narrowly defined roles who report to Israelite. John Wood, who joined the AG’s staff in July, oversees the department’s litigating sections. A graduate of Harvard Law School and a former associate in the D.C. office of Kirkland & Ellis, the 33-year-old Wood most recently served as deputy general counsel of the Office of Management and Budget. He served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Fourth Circuit Judge J. Michael Luttig. Kyle Sampson, a Bush administration lawyer who helped guide Ashcroft through his rocky Senate confirmation in 2001, also joined the AG’s personal staff in July. Among other duties, Sampson, 34, acts as a liaison with the Office of Legal Policy and Office of Legal Counsel and works on judicial nominations. Sampson graduated from University of Chicago Law School and clerked for Judge Karen Williams on the Fourth Circuit. Chuck Rosenberg, former special counsel to Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert Mueller III, oversees issues related to counterterrorism and national security. Rosenberg, 42, worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia for nearly a decade, where he tackled a number of sensitive espionage and national security cases. Jeffrey Taylor, an assistant U.S. attorney from the Southern District of California, has been serving on detail in the AG’s office since May 2002. Taylor, who is 38, focuses on criminal matters. At the top, serving as Ashcroft’s closest advisers and his political bodyguards, are Ayres and Israelite. Ayres came on as campaign manager of Ashcroft’s successful Senate bid in 1994 and has since served as Ashcroft’s chief of staff. Ayres ran the campaign and later Ashcroft’s Senate office while earning his business degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. The 40-year-old father of four is known for being aggressive and intensely loyal to Ashcroft. He also shares his boss’s deep religious conviction. In terms of influence with Ashcroft, no one in the Justice Department comes close to Ayres. Israelite, a University of Missouri Law School grad and former litigation associate in the Kansas City office of St. Louis-based Bryan Cave, spent two years as a legislative aide to Missouri’s other Republican senator, Christopher “Kit” Bond. Prior to joining the Justice Department, Israelite served as director of political and governmental affairs for the Republican National Committee. Ashcroft’s supporters say his heavy reliance on Ayres and Israelite does not necessarily mean the AG is aloof or not amenable to debate. What’s clear is that those who want Ashcroft’s ear must learn to work with “the Davids.” “My sense is that they are really trying to do what has always been the responsibility of a chief of staff — to make sure the AG is getting information he needs and is apprised of things that merit his attention,” says one senior Justice Department official. “Somebody has got to help the attorney general make prioritization decisions.” DIFFERENT STYLES Even so, the Ashcroft model differs dramatically from the way things operated under the last administration. Attorney General Janet Reno held large staff meetings nearly every morning that came to be known as “get-back” meetings. Often, more than 20 senior department officials and career lawyers would squeeze around Reno’s conference room table to report directly to the AG about ongoing projects and cases. The term “get-back” was short for Reno’s frequent request: “Would you please get back to me and let me know?” “Information flow was good for me and good for Janet as attorney general,” says former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., a partner at D.C.’s Covington & Burling. “When people feel comfortable coming up to the fifth floor or the fourth floor, they are more likely to share with you their frank views knowing that if they do, they will be respected. By hearing those frank views it makes it easier for the deputy attorney general or the attorney general to make a better decision.” “Reno was a big-tent person,” says Nicholas Gess, of counsel in the D.C. office of Bingham McCutchen who held a number of high-level DOJ posts under Reno. “Her morning meetings might have had too many people in them. Everybody in the department had access to her.” Ashcroft keeps tabs on his department very differently. His first meeting of the day is a top secret intelligence briefing at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Later in the morning, he holds a senior staff meeting attended by a small group of aides — most of them close, personal advisers — to discuss pressing issues. The meeting is not open to presidentially appointed assistant attorneys general or component heads. Once a week, the heads of the department’s five major litigating divisions send up a memo to the attorney general’s office identifying potential hot button issues. A number of the department’s senior leaders meet twice weekly with the associate AG and once every other week with the deputy AG. The only routine meeting attended by Ashcroft is a monthly brown-bag lunch where two or three department officials update the group on the work they oversee. The management model is similar to that implemented by Bush I Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who, like Ashcroft, is a former governor. Adds a former senior DOJ official: “The attorney general doesn’t meet with that many people one-on-one. But I don’t believe he would refuse to see anyone who had any important concerns about the policy and operations of the department.” Still, the absence of more-frequent meetings fuels a sense of frustration among some senior DOJ officials that the attorney general is not appropriately engaged in the department’s work. “The attorney general spends the lion’s share of his time on national security issues now. That’s the way it has to be,” says Corallo. “There are probably some people in the department who don’t feel they’ve had enough face time with the attorney general.” While the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 necessarily sharpened the AG’s focus on national security issues and counterterrorism initiatives, Ashcroft made it clear that he had no intention of getting involved in the department’s day-to-day operations even before those events. “His idea was to figure out ways to improve the department through leadership,” says a high-level Justice Department official. “Something he said a lot in the beginning was ‘The department already has 125,000 employees. If I get involved in micromanaging, then I’m just adding one more person to the department.’” Vanessa Blum is a reporter for Legal Times , a Recorder affiliate based in Washington, D.C.

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