In March 2004, then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and then-chief of staff Andrew Card attempted to go around acting Attorney General James Comey and get John Ashcroft, who was debilitated with pancreatitis, to sign off on an extension of the administration’s warrantless domestic spying efforts from his hospital bed.
As ThinkProgress noted, Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee today that “given how ill [he] knew the attorney general was,” he was “upset” and “angry,” believing he had “witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man.”
At today’s press briefing, White House spokesman Tony Snow dismissed Comey’s testimony and the seriousness of Ashcroft’s condition. When CNN’s Ed Henry asked Snow if the White House had been trying to “take advantage of a very sick man” in “an end-run” to “try to get John Ashcroft to overrule James Comey” Snow replied, “Because he had an appendectomy, his brain didn’t work?” Watch it:
The White House refuses to acknowledge that its actions were potentially illegal. At that time, Ashcroft didn’t have any power because the powers of the attorney general had been transferred to Comey.
Moreover, Snow is downplaying the seriousness of Ashcroft’s health condition at the time. Ashcroft had been in intensive care at George Washington University hospital for “over a week” before Gonzales and Card paid him a visit. Mrs. Ashcroft had banned “all visitors and all phone calls.” Comey described Ashcroft’s condition on the day of Card and Gonzales’s visit:
Mrs. Ashcroft was standing by the hospital bed, Mr. Ashcroft was lying down in the bed, the room was darkened. And 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.
Ashcroft’s chief of staff also personally requested that Comey “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.”
QUESTION: OK. Very dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill today. James Comey, who in 2004 was the acting attorney general, testified that when he raised objections to the terrorist surveillance program, that Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel and the White House chief of staff, Andy Card, took this extraordinary measure. They went to the hospital room of John Ashcroft to try to get him to override what Jim Comey was saying about how this needs proper legal footing.
So why would — wasn’t that an end-run by the White House to try to get John Ashcroft to overrule James Comey?
SNOW: Well, number one, you’ve got a representation of internal White House deliberations. And we simply don’t talk about (inaudible) and not going to.
QUESTION: But he’s testified on Capitol Hill…
SNOW: I understand that. I understand that.
QUESTION: (inaudible) have to tell the truth to the American people. He’s testified (inaudible) public…
SNOW: Let me give you a couple of things.
Also, what had always been noted is the terrorist surveillance program was in fact something that was constantly reviewed by the Department of Justice, either 45- or 90-day periods, and furthermore was reviewed by the inspectors general at the Department of Justice and at the National Security Agency. In addition, there was review by the FISA Court.
The terrorist surveillance program saved lives. Period.
Number two, those who had questions about the FISA Court sat down and worked with the administration last year. And we worked out legislation that I think has met any questions that anybody had.
But the fact is, you’ve got reforms. And I’m not going to talk about old conversations.
QUESTION: But you had the acting attorney general at the time saying, regardless of what inspectors general (inaudible) — but the acting attorney — chief law enforcement officer in the country — is saying in 2004, I’ve got problems with this. And then you’ve got the chief of staff and the counsel, Alberto Gonzales at the time, going and, according to James Comey, they were trying to take advantage of a sick man who was in intensive care.
SNOW: Trying to take advantage of a sick man. Because he had an appendectomy, his brain didn’t work?
QUESTION: I was very upset. I was very angry. He was in intensive care at GW. I thought I had just witnessed an effort — let me just tell you. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man. OK?
Did any White House officials come and try to take advantage of…
QUESTION: That’s just really not applicable in terms of this.
QUESTION: They were trying to take advantage of him, according to James Comey.
SNOW: I’m just telling you, I don’t know anything about the conversations.