In March 2004, President Bush’s warrantless domestic spying efforts were temporarily suspended after then-acting Attorney General James Comey refused to sign on to an extension of the program “amid concerns about its legality and oversight.”
Today, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Comey detailed the extraordinary and potentially illegal efforts made by Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card — then White House counsel and chief of staff, respectively — to attempt to force John Ashcroft to overrule Comey, despite the fact that Ashcroft was debilitated in a hospital with pancreatitis.
In his testimony today, Comey spoke for the first time about:
— The high-speed pursuit that took place when Comey learned that Card and Gonzales were on their way to see Ashcroft at the hospital;
— The hospital meeting, in which the seriously ill Ashcroft “stunned” Comey by lifting “his head off the pillow and in very strong terms” rejecting Card and Gonzales’ effort to have him reauthorize the spying program;
— Comey’s admission that he believed he had “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”;
— Andrew Card’s subsequent “very upset” call to Comey, in which Card claimed that he and Gonzales had visited Ashcroft “just…to wish him well”;
— The White House’s eventual agreement to suspend the warrantless spying in the face of a threat of mass resignations, including from FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Ashcroft
First, Comey discussed the high-speed pursuit that took place when he learned that Card and Gonzales were on their way to see Ashcroft at the hospital:
COMEY: I was headed home at about 8 o’clock that evening, my security detail was driving me. And I remember exactly where I was — on Constitution Avenue — and got a call from Attorney General Ashcroft’s chief of staff telling me that he had gotten a call…and that as a result of that call Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were on their way to the hospital to see Mr. Ashcroft. […]
So I hung up the phone, 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 Director 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.
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.
SCHUMER: What was your concern? You were in obviously a huge hurry.
COMEY: 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 that.
Comey then detailed his meeting at the hospital with Card, Gonzales, and Ashcroft:
COMEY: I raced to the hospital room, entered. And 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. […]
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. And I went back in the room. […]
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…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.
Comey explained how, shortly afterwards, Card called him “very upset and demanded that I come to the White House immediately.”
COMEY: 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 [Ted Olson]. … He asked whether I was refusing to come to the White House. I said, No, sir, I’m not. I’ll be there. I need to go back to the Department of Justice first. […]
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. […]
SCHUMER: OK. And then did you meet with Mr. Card?
COMEY: I did. I went with Mr. Olson driving — my security detail drove us to the White House. We went into the West Wing. Mr. Card would not allow Mr. Olson to enter his office. He asked Mr. Olson to please sit outside in his sitting area. I relented and went in to meet with Mr. Card alone. We met, had a discussion, which was much more — much calmer than the discussion on the telephone.
After — I don’t remember how long, 10 or 15 minutes — Mr. Gonzales arrived and brought Mr. Olson into the room. And the four of us had a discussion. […]
SCHUMER: Can you tell us what happened the next day?
COMEY: The program was reauthorized without us and without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality. And I prepared a letter of resignation, intending to resign the next day, Friday, March the 12th.
Finally, Comey explained how President Bush eventually agreed to “put this matter on a footing where we could certify to its legality,” but only after Mueller, Ashcroft, Comey, and various other officials threatened to resign.
SCHUMER: And why did you decide to resign? …
COMEY: I believed that I couldn’t — 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.
SCHUMER: Now, let me just ask you this. And this obviously is all troubling. As I understand it, you believed that others were also prepared to resign, not just you, is that correct? … Was one of those Director Mueller?
COMEY: I believe so. You’d have to ask him, but I believe so. […]
SCHUMER: How about your chief of staff?
COMEY: Yes. He was certainly going to go when I went.
How about Mr. Ashcroft’s chief of staff?
COMEY: My understanding was that he would go as well. … 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.
SCHUMER: And it was his view that Mr. Ashcroft was likely to resign as well?
COMEY: Yes.SCHUMER: So what did you do when you heard that?
COMEY: I agreed to wait. I said that what I would do is — that Friday would be last day. And Monday morning I would resign. […]
SCHUMER: Now, let’s go to the next day, which was March 12. Can you tell us what happened then?
COMEY: I went to the Oval Office — as I did every morning as acting attorney general — with Director Mueller to brief the president and the vice president on what was going on on Justice Department’s counterterrorism work.
We had the briefing. And as I was leaving, the 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, to do what we…
SCHUMER: Had the president’s direction to do the right thing?
COMEY: Right. 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.
You can read the full testimony HERE.