The WaPo’s editorial page — which has, unlike the NY Times, in general been pretty lukewarm about blasting the Bush administration — nicely sums up yesterday’s testimony by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey (emphasis mine):
James B. Comey, the straight-as-an-arrow former No. 2 official at the Justice Department, yesterday offered the Senate Judiciary Committee an account of Bush administration lawlessness so shocking it would have been unbelievable coming from a less reputable source.
Here’s what happened (a pdf transcript of Comey’s testimony is here — the block quotes below are from the transcript). In March of 2004, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had, in consultation with Comey and other DoJ staff, concluded that the NSA spying program (Comey wouldn’t ever confirm exactly which program he was talking about, but there’s no real doubt what it was) had no legal basis, and that they therefore would refuse to sign off on its reauthorization. Shortly after that meeting, Ashcroft was rushed to the hospital in very serious medical condition. Ashcroft remained in intensive care for over a week, during which time Comey was named Acting Attorney General.
And over the next week — particularly the following week, on Tuesday — we communicated to the relevant parties at the White House and elsewhere our decision that as acting attorney general I would not certify the program as to its legality and explained our reasoning in detail….
Then the story goes Hollywood. Ashcroft remained in intensive care, and his wife had banned all visitors. Nonetheless, Comey got a call at about 8 pm the next night from Ashcroft’s chief of staff alerting him that then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andy Card were on their way to Ashcroft’s hospital room. Comey told his driver to get him to the hospital (they apparently turned on their sirens to do so), and he called FBI Director Robert Mueller, who said he also would rush to the hospital. Why?
I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that.
Comey was, of course, correct. Fortunately, he got to the hospital before Gonzales and Card. He tried to explain to Ashcroft what was happening.
I immediately began speaking to him, trying to orient him as to time and place, and try to see if he could focus on what was happening, and it wasn’t clear to me that he could. He seemed pretty bad off.
Comey obviously knew what was coming, and he took steps to protect himself and Ashcroft:
I went out in the hallway. Spoke to Director Mueller by phone. He was on his way. I handed the phone to the head of the security detail and Director Mueller instructed the FBI agents present not to allow me to be removed from the room under any circumstances.
So Comey, along with a couple of his staff from DoJ who had since arrived, waited.
And it was only a matter of minutes that the door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card. They came over and stood by the bed. They greeted the attorney general very briefly. And then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there — to seek his approval for a matter, and explained what the matter was — which I will not do.
And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me. He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me — drawn from the hour-long meeting we’d had a week earlier — and in very strong terms expressed himself, 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. There is the attorney general,” and he pointed to me, and I was just to his left. The two men did not acknowledge me. They turned and walked from the room.
Quite a story. But it doesn’t stop there. Gonzales and Card, unsurprisingly, were not at all happy with what had just happened. For convenience, I have bolded the obvious lie spoken by Card.
While I was talking to Director Mueller, an agent came up to us and said that I had an urgent call in the command center, which was right next door…. I took the call. And Mr. Card was very upset and demanded that I come to the White House immediately. I responded that, after the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness present. He replied, “What conduct? We were just there to wish him well.” And I said again, “After what I just witnessed, I will not meet with you without a witness. And I intend that witness to be the solicitor general of the United States.”
“What conduct” indeed. No doubt the piece of paper in the envelope was just a get-well card signed by the White House staff. Here’s “what conduct,” as Comey saw it:
I was concerned that this was an effort to do an end-run around the acting attorney general and to get a very sick man to approve something that the Department of Justice had already concluded — the department as a whole — was unable to be certified as to its legality. And that was my concern.
Why was Comey so insistent on having a witness?
I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me. I thought he had conducted himself, and I said to the attorney general, in a way that demonstrated a strength I had never seen before. But still I thought it was improper. And it was for that reason that I thought there ought to be somebody with me if I’m going to meet with Mr. Card.
So Ted Olson, then the Solicitor General, was dragged from a dinner party and rushed to the White House, where he and Comey went to meet with Card. Card initially refused to allow Olson into his office, but made him wait outside; Comey agreed to meet with Card anyway. Apparently the conversation was much more civil than the telephone call had been.
In that conversation, Comey and Card discussed the fact that, if the program was allowed to go forward without the Justice Department’s sign-off as to its legality, there would likely be a large number of high-level resignations, apparently to include Comey and his chief of staff, FBI Director Mueller, and Mr. Ashcroft himself. Nonetheless, the program was reauthorized without DoJ’s approval. Comey actually drafted a letter of resignation, intending to resign the next day (Friday, March 12).
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.
Two things delayed Comey’s decision to resign immediately. First, the Madrid train bombings occurred on Thursday, March 11. Second, Ashcroft’s chief of staff begged Comey to hold off for a few days on delivering his letter.
Mr. Ashcroft’s chief of staff asked me something that meant a great deal to him, and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me. He was very concerned that Mr. Ashcroft was not well enough to understand fully what was going on. And he begged me to wait until — this was Thursday that I was
making this decision — to wait til Monday to give him the weekend to get oriented enough so that I wouldn’t leave him behind, was his concern.
Of course, there were no mass resignations from the Justice Department. What happened? This is Friday, March 12, after a regularly-scheduled morning meeting:
[T]he president asked to speak to me, took me in his study and we had a one-on-one meeting for about 15 minutes — again, which I will not go into the substance of. It was a very full exchange. And at the end of that meeting, at my urging, he met with Director Mueller, who was waiting for me downstairs. He met with Director Mueller again privately, just the two of them. And then after those two sessions, we had his direction to do the right thing … We had the president’s direction to do what we believed, what the Justice Department believed was necessary to put this matter on a footing where we could certify to its legality. And so we then set out to do that. And we did that.
So the President, faced with the politically unacceptable prospect of the top two officials in his Justice Department and the Director of the FBI resigning en masse eight months before the 2004 election, gave in. He gave Comey the authority to fix the program in such a way that he was able to sign off on its legality. Comey explained that the program continued to operate in its original (apparently illegal) form for two to three weeks without DoJ sign-off, while he figured out what changes were needed, and then the changes were implemented.
Later in the hearing, Comey explained that, in addition to Gonzales, Vice President Cheney and his counsel, David Addington, also wanted DoJ to sign off on the original version of the program. Surprise surprise. Still later, Senator Feingold offered a good summing-up of what’s going on in Washington.
I have great disagreement with this administration. But there’s a difference in this administration between people like you and Attorney General Ashcroft, who do fundamentally respect the rule of law, and many others who have shown some of the most blatant disrespect for the rule of law I think in American history.
I confess that I’m a bit surprised to learn that John Ashcroft is one of the good guys in this story. But so be it — kudos to him for standing up to White House pressure despite being in intensive care.
What’s really appalling, in addition to the story itself, is that Alberto Gonzales is now running the Justice Department. If this story had come out before Gonzales’ confirmation hearings, he surely would never have been confirmed as Attorney General. The guy is an embarrassment to his office, and to the country. He should resign at once. If he doesn’t, the president should fire him. And if the president won’t act, the Congress should initiate impeachment proceedings against Gonzales, who has little support among Senate Republicans and who conceivably could receive the 2/3 vote needed for the Senate to convict him. This nonsense has gone on long enough.
UPDATE: Senators Schumer, Feingold, Durbin, and Kennedy today sent a letter to AG Gonzales that asks, in light of Comey’s testimony yesterday, whether Gonzales “wish[es] to revise” testimony he gave in February, 2006 regarding internal objections to the NSA spying program — testimony which, if Comey testified accurately, was a tissue of lies. Perhaps they are laying the groundwork for a more or less irrefutable charge of “high crimes and misdemeanors” (specifically, lying to Congress under oath) that would serve as the basis for impeachment. Let’s hope so.