Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey (he held the post before the now-disgraced Paul McNulty) testified before Congress today. Comey is well-regarded in legal circles, and his tenure at DOJ is actually known for good things and not bad ones — specifically, he was the acting-AG who refused to sign off on the warrantless wiretapping program when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized, making him one of the few federal employees who took a strong stand against executive overreach. (More on why Comey’s professionalism, high character, and effectiveness would make him an excellent candidate for AG in a better world.)
In Comey’s testimony today, he described the fascinating scene surrounding the authorization of the wiretapping program — all of the details he provides make it clear Alberto Gonzales was willing to circumvent the law in order to ram through a supposed national security necessity. Gonzo quite literally ignored the rights and responsibilities of the Department of Justice in an attempt to get what he wanted — and roughly a year later Bush named him the head of the DOJ! The whole episode sheds light on how fundamentally wrong Gonzales’ appointment was, and how shameful it is that he still has a job.
Riveting details courtesy of the Muckraker:
The events took place in March of 2004, when the [wiretapping] program was in need of renewal by the Justice Department. When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft fell ill and was hospitalized, Comey became the acting-Attorney General.
The deadline for the Justice Department’s providing its sign-off of the program was March 11th (the program required reauthorization every 45 days). On that day, Comey, then the acting AG, informed the White House that he “would not certify the legality” of the program.
According to Comey, he was on his way home when he got a call from Ashcroft’s wife that Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card were on their way to the hospital. Comey then rushed to the hospital (sirens blaring) to beat them there and thwart “an effort to overrule me.”
After Comey arrived at the hospital with a group of senior Justice Department officials, Gonzales and Card arrived and walked up to Ashcroft, who was lying barely conscious on his hospital bed. “Gonzales began to explain why he was there, to seek his approval for a matter,” Comey testified. But Ashcroft rebuffed Gonzales and told him that Comey was the attorney general now. “The two men turned and walked from the room,” said Comey.
A “very upset” Andrew Card then called Comey and demanded that he come to the White House for a meeting at 11 PM that night… Comey had a private discussion with Card. This discussion, Comey testified, was much “calmer.” According to Comey, Card was concerned about reports that there were to be large numbers of resignations at Justice Department.
The program was reauthorized without the signature of the attorney general. Because of that, Comey said, he prepared a letter of resignation. “I believed that I couldn’t stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that Justice Department said had no legal basis.”
At this point, according to Comey, a number of senior Justice Department officials, including Ashcroft, were prepared to resign.
When Comey went in on that Friday, March 12th to give the White House its customary morning briefing, Comey said that the president pulled him aside. They had a 15 minute private meeting, the content of which Comey would not divulge. But Comey did suggest at the conclusion of that conversation that the president speak with FBI Director Mueller. And so that meeting followed. Following that meeting, Comey said that Mueller brought word that the Justice Department was to do whatever was “necessary” to make the program into one that the Justice Department could sign off on.
Comey said that it took two to three weeks for the Justice Department to do the analysis necessary to have the program approved. During that time, the program went on without Justice Department approval. But following the Justice Department’s suggested changes, the Justice Department (either Ashcroft or Comey) did sign off on the program.