The Ashcroft-Gonzales hospital room showdown

A former Justice Department official recounts how White House officials attempted to bully ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft into approving the secret wiretapping program.

Published May 15, 2007 5:27PM (EDT)

[This post has been updated; see the addition below.]

The call came at 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 10, 2004. Attorney General John Ashcroft was in the hospital, struck with a life-threatening case of pancreatitis. Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey was just leaving his office, being chauffeured by his security detail.

"I remember exactly where I was, on Constitution Avenue," Comey testified Tuesday morning before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "And [I] got a call from Attorney General Ashcroft's chief of staff telling me that he had gotten a call."

So begins a remarkable tale that nearly led to the resignation of the Justice Department's senior leadership, an ordeal that was recounted in great detail for the first time Tuesday. Two senior White House officials, Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales, were headed to Ashcroft's hospital bed, despite the instructions of his wife that there would be no phone calls or visitors. They wanted Ashcroft to sign off on the secret National Security Agency wiretapping program, a program that Ashcroft had already decided to reject before falling ill.

Comey was determined to stop them. "So I hung up the phone," Comey told the committee, and I "immediately called my chief of staff, told him to get as many of my people as possible to the hospital immediately. I hung up, called [FBI] Director [Robert] Mueller and -- with whom I'd been discussing this particular matter and had been a great help to me over that week -- and told him what was happening. He said, 'I'll meet you at the hospital right now.' [I] told my security detail that I needed to get to George Washington Hospital immediately. They turned on the emergency equipment and drove very quickly to the hospital. I got out of the car and ran up -- literally ran up the stairs with my security detail."

The story gets better at this point. Comey's testimony reads like a detective story. Minutes later, there is a showdown in the hospital room. Ashcroft, buffered by his wife and three of his senior deputies, faces down Gonzales and Card and refuses to sign off on the spy program. Gonzales and Card storm out of the room. Card calls Comey and demands that he come to the White House, but Comey refuses to go until he can get Ted Olson, the solicitor general, to accompany him. "After what I just witnessed, I will not meet with you without a witness," Comey tells Card.

The White House meeting produces no breakthrough. So the White House reauthorizes the program without the approval of the Department of Justice, apparently breaking its own procedure. "I prepared a letter of resignation, intending to resign the next day, Friday, March the 12th," Comey said. He expected many other senior Justice Department leaders, including Mueller, to resign as well. Eventually, President Bush steps in to smooth out the waters, overrule his staff and give permission to change the secret spy program to address the concerns of the Department of Justice.

At the hearing, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was leading the questioning, asked the following. "So in sum, it was your belief that Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card were trying to take advantage of an ill and maybe disoriented man to try and get him to do something that many, at least in the Justice Department, thought was against the law? Was that a correct summation?"

Comey answered directly. "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."

Truly remarkable.

Update: Salon has posted a partial transcript of the hearing here.

As of Tuesday morning, senior White House aides stand accused of attempting to bully a sick, and possibly dying, man, the former attorney general of the United States, into approving a wiretapping program that he believed to be illegal.

So how does White House press secretary Tony Snow respond? In his press conference today, he dodged direct questions and suggested that James Comey, the former deputy attorney general, who made the accusations, was grandstanding.

"The fact is, you've got somebody who has splashy testimony on Capitol Hill. Good for him," said Snow. "We're not talking about internal deliberations."

That explanation will not stand. At some point the White House will have to respond to these claims in detail, or the story will last for weeks.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has already compared the ordeal to the "Saturday Night Massacre," the fateful night when both the attorney general and the deputy attorney general resigned after being ordered by President Nixon to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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