WASHINGTON - After nearly a year of constant public appearances, Attorney General John Ashcroft has become the Bush administration's Bigfoot - the mythical, rarely seen figure who shows up only briefly before quickly ducking away.
Until he made a few appearances last week marking the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ashcroft - a long-time politician who seems to enjoy the limelight - had kept an unusually low profile during the past three months.
The trigger for Ashcroft's vanishing act, according to news reports, was a run-in with the White House after he overstated the case against alleged terrorist Jose Padilla, who was initially accused of plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb."
On June 10, Ashcroft left meetings in Moscow to announce that the United States had "disrupted an unfolding terrorist plot" that could have caused "mass death and injury."
Senior Bush aides were reportedly stunned when they saw Ashcroft on television describing Padilla, a man they had been told was a low-level scout for Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, as a dangerous terrorist.
Two days later, White House officials put out a less ominous message about the arrest, saying that Padilla was alleged to be merely in the initial planning stages of a plot and that his research on radiological weapons consisted largely of surfing the Internet.
"We work very hard to inform yet not alarm," a senior administration official told The Washington Post. "It wasn't clear that it [Ashcroft's initial announcement of the arrest] needed to be done in that way, at that level. It was not the most artfully done. The story became a lot of bigger than any of us thought it would."
Padilla was sent to a Navy brig in South Carolina, where he remains, still without being charged.
A Justice Department spokesman denied last week that the White House had ordered Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor who represented the state in the U.S. Senate, to keep quiet. But the attorney general's schedule shows a remarkable drop-off in news-making announcements.
He held 17 news conferences in the three months before the Padilla announcement. In the three months afterward, he held one, a session Sept. 3 in which he announced that the nation was on a higher security alert.
Mark Corallo, the department spokesman, said Ashcroft's lower profile over the summer was simply the result of some needed vacation time and the department's view that no major developments in the war on terrorism had occurred. "We don't hold press conferences unless there's something to say," Corallo added.
But Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute in Indianapolis, said Ashcroft's Padilla announcement might have been the final straw for other Bush administration officials who felt that the attorney general had been hogging the spotlight and overshadowing Domestic Security Director Tom Ridge.
"Until that point, Ashcroft had been acting like someone running for office, which means putting out your name and face as much as possible," Wittmann said.
"But he forgot that the president has his own political agenda."