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Talking Points: A Dramatic Standoff

In March 2004, President Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program was temporarily suspended after then-acting Attorney General James Comey refused to sign onto an extension of the program.

In March 2004, President Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program was temporarily suspended after then-acting Attorney General James Comey refused to sign onto an extension of the program, citing an “extensive review” by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel stating “that the program did not comply with the law.” In “gripping testimony” yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey revealed extraordinary details about the efforts made by Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card — then-White House counsel and chief of staff, respectively — to persuade John Ashcroft to overrule Comey, even as Ashcroft was debilitated in an intensive care unit with pancreatitis. The Washington Post calls Comey’s “account of Bush administration lawlessness so shocking it would have been unbelievable coming from a less reputable source.” Indeed, Comey’s revelations confirm the worst fears about Alberto Gonzales’ dangerously flawed judgment, and provide further evidence of the contempt for basic legal restraints displayed by the most senior administration officials, including President Bush.

  • The White House placed undue pressure on Attorney General Ashcroft while he lay in his hospital bed. Comey explained yesterday how the ordeal began on the evening of March 10, 2004, hours before the authority for the spying program was set to expire. A top aide to Ashcroft alerted Comey that Gonzales and Card had arranged a visit with Ashcroft, who was then hospitalized with gallstone pancreatitis. Comey “ordered his driver to rush him to George Washington University Hospital with emergency lights flashing and a siren blaring, to intercept the pair.” Comey “arrived first in the darkened room, in time to brief Mr. Ashcroft, who he said seemed barely conscious.” Minutes later, Gonzales and Card arrived, envelope in hand, and explained that they were seeking his approval to extend authority for warrantless spying. “Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me,” Comey said yesterday. “He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact…and then laid his head back down on the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them, But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general…and he pointed to me.” The White House effort to overrule Comey had failed. “The two men did not acknowledge me,” Comey said. “They turned and walked from the room.” Comey added, “I was angry. I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man… I thought he had conducted himself in a way that demonstrated a strength I had never seen before, but still I thought it was improper.”
  • It took the threat of mass resignation for the White House to change the wiretapping program in the ways Justice demanded. The next morning, March 11, it was reauthorized “without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality.” Comey had seen enough, and wrote up his resignation letter. “I couldn’t stay, if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis. I just simply couldn’t stay.” Comey said yesterday that he believed both Mueller and Ashcroft were prepared to resign with him, along with all of their top aides. One day later, on March 12, facing a threat of mass resignations, the administration cracked. Bush informed Mueller that he would authorize the changes in the program sought by the Justice Department. Comey said he signed the reauthorization “two or three weeks” later. “It was unclear from his testimony what authority existed for the program while the changes were being made.”
  • The President and the Attorney General have shown a disturbing contempt for the Justice Department and the law. The Washington Post notes that “the bottom line” of Comey’s revelations is “the administration’s alarming willingness…to ignore its own lawyers.” After all, the Justice Department’s conclusions “are supposed to be the final word in the executive branch about what is lawful or not, and the administration has emphasized since the warrantless wiretapping story broke that it was being done under the department’s supervision.” The fact that Alberto Gonzales “is now in charge of the department he tried to steamroll may be most disturbing of all.” Moreover, President Bush’s direct role in this affair remains to be fully explored. Comey noted yesterday that Ashcroft’s wife “had banned all visitors and all phone calls” to the hospital, but that Card and Gonzales were permitted to visit Ashcroft after a direct call from the White House. “I have some recollection that the call was from the president himself,” he said.