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Adam Ciongoli doesn’t remember being formally offered a job at Main Justice. Since joining John Ashcroft’s Senate staff in 1999 as counsel to the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Ciongoli has drifted with the current of Ashcroft’s political career. Now, at just 34 years old, the Georgetown law school graduate is one of the attorney general’s most influential advisers. As legal counsel to the attorney general, Ciongoli holds a place in Ashcroft’s inner circle, helping develop the Justice Department’s most critical and controversial initiatives. “There are very few decisions made by the attorney general that do not involve Adam,” says Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh, who heads the DOJ policy shop. Perhaps more important than his contribution to any specific legislation or policy proposal, Ciongoli serves as Ashcroft’s sounding board and sparring partner on nearly all legal matters. Though it is always clear who the boss is, Ciongoli has made himself indispensable by giving frank opinions. “Adam is a very insightful legal analyst,” Ashcroft says. “He has participated in a wide variety of matters, from helping formulate, construct and shape the Patriot Act to counseling me on items related to border security and the new FBI guidelines. “He is known for his willingness to disagree and to stress proposals in a constructive way. That’s his nature,” Ashcroft adds. “Our relationship is one I enjoy a great deal, and it’s one that helps me do a better job.” Over the past three years, Ciongoli has been close by for some of the most pivotal moments in Ashcroft’s political career. When Ashcroft’s Senate opponent, Missouri Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash and was replaced on the ballot by his widow, it was Ciongoli who stayed up nights preparing a challenge to the outcome of the election — though Ashcroft decided against filing suit and eventually lost his Senate seat at the polls. When Ashcroft got the call from Austin, Texas, that President George W. Bush wanted to interview him for the attorney general’s post, it was Ciongoli who got on a plane to Springfield, Mo., that very night to brief Ashcroft. As Ashcroft prepared for grueling confirmation hearings, Ciongoli went over his boss’s record — anticipating questions and providing rebuttal. And when Ashcroft was sworn in by Justice Clarence Thomas, Ciongoli was among the intimate group of supporters there to witness it. Ciongoli’s dealings with the attorney general also extend beyond politics. The two men frequently eat lunch together — so frequently that Ciongoli can rattle off their regular order at the Full Kee Restaurant in Chinatown. (Shrimp dumpling soup for himself and — fittingly — General Tso’s chicken for the general.) They both enjoy discussing constitutional history and American culture — the 6-foot-7-inch Ciongoli usually taking the more contrarian positions. In light-hearted moments, they are known to riff off each other with impersonations of “The Simpsons” television cartoon characters. But there are significant differences between them as well. Ciongoli, for instance, has never participated in Ashcroft’s morning prayer sessions. “I became aware at some point after I started working in the Senate that there were meetings in the morning,” he says. “I never felt any pressure to attend. I never have attended.” Ciongoli is known inside Main Justice for having strong opinions and enjoying a good debate — two traits he attributes to growing up in a large family. The eldest of five, Ciongoli was born in Philadelphia. His father, a neurologist specializing in multiple sclerosis, moved the family 11 times before settling in Burlington, Vt., when Ciongoli was 7. “I think growing up in my family was good training. There are a lot of people who have very strong opinions, and no one is shy about expressing them,” he says. Though his parents are both Republicans, Ciongoli says he underwent his own political transformation while studying history at the University of Pennsylvania. It was the late 1980s, and the university was mired in a debate over political correctness. Ciongoli — who identifies himself as a conservative and a civil libertarian — found himself siding with conservatives opposed to speech codes. Upon graduating in 1990, he went to work for William Bennett, who headed the Office of National Drug Control Policy. But shortly after Ciongoli arrived in Washington, D.C., for the entry-level post, Bennett stepped down. Ciongoli stumbled into a job with an advertising agency in New York and later applied to law school. After being admitted to Georgetown University Law Center, he moved back to Philadelphia for a year, where he worked renovating a five-unit apartment building to earn money for tuition and lived with his grandfather — the man Ciongoli calls “the most inspiring person in my life.” “I remember as I was growing up being fascinated that he appeared to be able to do anything,” Ciongoli says. Ciongoli himself is something of a Renaissance man — a brainy lawyer with a passion for Italian wine who also knows how to install a toilet and fix a car engine. He lives in Arlington, Va., and is not married. Ciongoli seems to have internalized the immigrant values of his grandfather, who moved to the United States from southern Italy as a child, never went to college, and worked tirelessly to create a better life for his family. “I very much grew up with the idea that life is not about any individual generation,” he says. “It’s about the family.” After graduating law school in 1995, Ciongoli began building his conservative Republican r�sum� — first clerking for Judge Samuel Alito Jr. on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then joining the appellate practice, headed by Kenneth Starr, in the D.C. office of Kirkland & Ellis. As an associate at Kirkland, Ciongoli worked closely with several rising stars in the conservative bar, including Jay Lefkowitz, now a domestic policy adviser to President Bush, and Paul Clement, now principal deputy solicitor general. In 1999 Ciongoli got a call from Clement, who had since left Kirkland to serve as chief counsel to the Constitution Subcommittee, chaired by Ashcroft. Clement was thinking about going back to private practice and wanted Ciongoli to consider taking his post. “He not only had the academic background and smarts, but also the social skills it takes to be successful on the Hill,” Clement recalls. Ciongoli got the job, and as counsel to the subcommittee, tackled issues ranging from judicial nominations to racial profiling. “The issue of racial profiling sort of popped up while I was there. It was an interesting issue in that it didn’t break along normal party lines,” Ciongoli says. Indeed, Ashcroft began working with Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin — among the harshest critics of Ashcroft’s policies as attorney general — to draw attention to the problem of racial discrimination in policing and traffic stops. “I think what really resonated with the attorney general,” Ciongoli says, “is the idea that the Constitution is colorblind. It does not permit government to treat citizens differently on the basis of race, particularly in the context of law enforcement.” Since Sept. 11, 2001, Ashcroft’s opposition to racial profiling has been tested. Arab-American leaders have called the government’s detention of more than 1,000 Middle Eastern men “massive racial profiling.” But Ciongoli says Justice has been careful not to consider race, or even national origin, when identifying suspects. Rather, law enforcement officials work with a profile that considers several factors, including passport origin. It’s a fine distinction, but one Ciongoli deems critical from a legal perspective. “After Sept. 11 we spent some time thinking about this. For one thing, the American public was actually saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ But both the attorney general and the director of the FBI were very clear early on that we would not use racial profiling,” he says. “People who look at what we’re doing and say it’s simply racial profiling are looking a little too close to the surface. “ On Sept. 10, 2001, Ciongoli and his father met Ashcroft and Ashcroft’s wife, Janet, for dinner at I Ricchi in downtown Washington. Twelve hours later, four commercial planes were hijacked, thousands of Americans were slaughtered, and the mission of the Justice Department became focused on just one thing — making certain such an atrocity would never happen again. In the following weeks Ciongoli worked with legal policy chief Dinh and others to put together the legislative package that would become the USA Patriot Act — one of the most sweeping pieces of criminal justice legislation in a generation. Hastily written and negotiated through Congress in a matter of weeks, the Patriot Act grants unprecedented power to law enforcement, drawing criticism that it infringes on constitutional rights. Ciongoli also began looking at a series of legal questions, ranging from the executive authority to close airports to the treatment of Taliban and al-Qaida detainees under the Geneva Convention. He was one of four DOJ attorneys principally involved in drafting the administration’s order authorizing military commissions to try suspected terrorists and writing the subsequent regulations. “It was nonstop basically until the beginning of November. In that time and since, I’ve gotten to work on a number of fascinating legal questions and problems,” says Ciongoli, who refuses to discuss in detail his projects related to terrorism. “To the extent that the White House asks the attorney general for legal advice, I get to participate in helping to craft it.” Ciongoli’s hallmark, according to colleagues, is his ability to distill complex issues to their key components. “In a department full of lawyers, he is a lawyer’s lawyer,” says Dinh. “He has an impressive ability to look at a problem and hone in on core elements that are critical to reaching a judgment.” Ciongoli’s typical day — though there are rarely typical days — begins with a briefing at which Ashcroft and his senior staff hash through major issues requiring decisions by the attorney general. Depending on when the phone stops ringing, Ciongoli usually leaves the office around 9 p.m. Each week Ciongoli participates in a meeting to review all civil litigation stemming from Sept. 11 — which inevitably leads to discussions on case strategies, filing dates and court decisions. He also acts as a liaison to the Office of Legal Policy and the Office of Legal Counsel, and advises Ashcroft on ethics matters, such as recusals. He frequently travels with the attorney general. “It gets pretty tiring,” Ciongoli says of a trip last December to meet with law enforcement officials in Europe. “We were in England for 10 hours before we got on the plane to fly to Madrid, where we were for 18 hours. And then we got on a plane for Berlin, and we were in Berlin for 18 hours.” Over the past 12 months Ciongoli also found time to argue a criminal appeal before a 9th Circuit panel in Alaska; build a wine cellar for his friend Clement, the deputy solicitor general; and teach a two-week course in constitutional law for Georgetown University. Yet the weight of the moment is not lost on him. He seems to have an acute, almost intoxicating, awareness that his work is making history. “Working here when things like this are happening is a once-in-a-generation, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Ciongoli says. “It’s an incredible honor.” Ciongoli says he is not fazed by the department’s critics. “I think criticism is good. It causes you to focus your mind and your thinking and to anticipate potential problems,” he says. “It helps remind everyone that we cannot get rid of the system we are trying to protect.”

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