Of course, Ashcroft still occupies his office at the Department of Justice. But in recent weeks, the formerly ubiquitous A.G. — mad-dog scourge of civil libertarians — has become the Bush administration's Invisible Man.

With each new revelation about who knew what both before and after September 11, the buck stops with disturbing frequency at Ashcroft's desk. The result: The attorney general suddenly labors under a self-evident gag order. Ashcroft's last appearance on Capitol Hill was May 3. In the weeks since, as one Cabinet officer after another — Rice, Cheney, Rumsfeld — has taken turns on Sunday talk shows to warn of new terrorist threats, Ashcroft has been nowhere to be found on the airwaves. He emerged this week just long enough to announce a massive ramping up of the FBI's anti-terrorist efforts. The plan centralizes authority under the very Washington officials most responsible for the September 11 failures and seems unlikely to stop the questions.

If the circling sharks are not quite showing their teeth, you can at least see the fins. On May 21, leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees emerged from a meeting with Ashcroft to press their inquiries into the management and leadership failures in the run-up to September 11 — inquiries that Ashcroft's Justice Department had been assiduously resisting. Reporters asked about the suppressed memo from Phoenix FBI Agent Ken Williams warning about possible al Qaeda members enrolled in flight schools, and when Ashcroft knew about it. “All of these are relevant questions,” replied an obviously frustrated Senator Bob Graham, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. One of Ashcroft's usual allies, Republican Senator Richard Shelby, described the Phoenix memo as “explosive, very relevant information” that “we will get into . . . as our inquiry continues” — a clear signal that even Senate Republicans are ready to resist any stonewalling.

memo just days after September 11 and never bothered to tell his boss is by itself enough for the White House to put him on ice. But the scandal on Ashcroft's watch is much deeper. Start with the fact that the agencies whose bureaucracies stumbled most spectacularly — the FBI and INS — report directly to the attorney general. True, both were rife with problems that predate the Bush administration. But Ashcroft took office promising to clean the stables. Instead, he presided over some of the most scandalous and deadly bureaucratic misjudgments in American history, from last summer's active suppression of FBI investigations in Arizona and Minneapolis to those late-fall student visas granted two of the deceased hijackers.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, it was easy to blame red tape. But increasingly, Ashcroft's basic judgment is the issue. It was Ashcroft who insisted on naming Robert Mueller, a Justice bureaucrat under the first President Bush, as new FBI director. It was Ashcroft who kept the embarrassing news of Agent Williams' Phoenix memo from going to the president or Congress. It was Ashcroft who in the autumn took the September 11 investigation away from the one U.S. attorney in the country with experience and success prosecuting al Qaeda — Mary Jo White in New York — and gave it to the same Justice Department that (we now know) had bungled earlier inquiries. Senators are suddenly remembering that back in November, it was Ashcroft who in apparent deference to the sensibilities of the NRA refused to use the federal government's gun-owner registry in his terrorism investigation.

The latest leak — a 6,000-word letter to FBI Director Mueller from Minneapolis FBI Agent and Counsel Coleen Rowley, published by Time magazine — comes close to directly implicating Ashcroft in a cover-up. Rowley charges Washington with “consistently, almost deliberately thwarting the Minneapolis FBI agents' efforts” to investigate Zacharias Moussaoui last summer. What is more, says Agent Rowley — a 21-year veteran of the FBI — after September 11, the Department of Justice “circled the wagons” to “protect the FBI from embarrassment and relevant FBI officials from scrutiny,” with the highest-ranking officials lying to Congress.

The deepest scandal is that after September, Ashcroft consistently misled both Congress and the public about the reforms needed to prevent another attack. The attacks happened, we were repeatedly told, because the FBI and CIA were hamstrung by liberal reformers back in the '70s. What was needed, said Ashcroft, were sweeping new powers to spy, to jail, to interrogate. What was needed, Ashcroft told Congress as late as December 12, was “enhanced information sharing between intelligence and law-enforcement communities,” not to mention what Ashcroft described as his “deliberate campaign of arrest and detention,” the incarceration without charges of over 1,100 immigrants. And he excoriated critics like Senator Patrick Leahy.

BY THEN, ASHCROFT HAD KNOWN FOR MONTHS what the rest of us are only just now finding out: that the FBI and Justice Department needed not new powers but new brains. It was not excessive restriction on wiretapping that caused Justice to drop the ball on Moussaoui: FBI headquarters, according to the Rowley memo, simply refused to provide a warrant to seize the suspect's hard drive, a warrant perfectly legal under existing laws. It was not liberal reformers who refused to listen to Phoenix Agent Ken Williams' low-tech survey of flight schools. It was not excessive restriction of intelligence agencies that led Ashcroft's Justice Department to disregard specific warnings about al Qaeda suicide flights in general, and Moussaoui in particular, from intelligence agencies in Europe.

As late as August, the mundanities of law enforcement might have made a difference on September 11: a memo passed up the chain of command and welcomed instead of buried. A quiet deployment of air marshals. More careful scrutiny of the quick and easy visas routinely granted to Saudis, the one nation in the world most responsible for funding al Qaeda and nurturing Islamic fundamentalism.

Ashcroft in the past has shown a gift for personal resurrection, so he may survive this crisis. But at the moment he is an attorney general running the Department of Justice without the trust of Congress, the White House or even FBI agents in the field. The anti-terrorism plan announced this week only deflects attention from that fundamental problem. The real story is that the attorney general spent the months after September 11 touting high-tech, cloak-and-dagger “reforms” that damaged the Bill of Rights, while covering up world-class failures of leadership, management and cognizance that might have made a real difference. No wonder he is on the leash.

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