17 May 2007

are you sitting down? you might go ahead and do so, if you aren't...

i NEVER thought i'd say this... but i feel sorry for john ashcroft. there. i said it. this is COMPLETELY fucked. up.

and can i just say YAY for ms. ashcroft for standing up to bush? we may be polar opposites, but you. go. grrrl.

Former Deputy AG on Wiretaps: "White House Tried to Coerce Ashcroft"
By Jason Leopold and Matt Renner
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 15 May 2007

The White House operated a domestic surveillance program for several weeks three years ago, overriding objections by senior Justice Department officials who had informed top Bush administration officials that the spy program was illegal, a former deputy attorney general testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In March 2004, a standoff between the White House and the Justice Department ensued because James Comey, the department's No. 2 in command, would not authorize a continuation of the warrantless wiretaps, Comey told lawmakers.

"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, which I will not go into here," Comey testified.

Responding to questions by Senator Chuck Schumer, (D-New York), Comey said Justice Department officials "had concerns as to our ability to certify its legality, which was our obligation for the program to be renewed."

"You thought something was wrong with how it was being operated or administered or overseen?" Schumer asked.

"We had - yes," Comey said.

The surveillance program was secretly authorized by President Bush after 9/11 to monitor communications between alleged terrorist suspects abroad and US citizens without first obtaining approval from a special court designated to authorize such activities under guidelines known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The program has come under fire by civil liberties groups and Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who said innocent American citizens have been caught up in the wiretaps.

Comey told lawmakers that his refusal to reauthorize the spy program resulted in a hastily arranged late-night meeting at a hospital, where then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and President Bush's former Chief of Staff Andrew Card tried to coerce a barely conscious John Ashcroft to approve the controversial eavesdropping program. Comey said he also was present at the meeting.

Ashcroft was in intensive care at the time, hospitalized with pancreatitis, but, according to Comey, Ashcroft was able to rebut the arguments made by Gonzales and refused to sign the authorization. Comey testified that Ashcroft had not recertified the program earlier because he had reservations about its legality. Comey assumed control of Ashcroft's duties as attorney general after Ashcroft was hospitalized. Under federal law, the spy program was supposed to be recertified by the Department of Justice every 45 days.

Comey described in extraordinary detail how the March 9, 2004 meeting at the hospital unfolded.

"I was headed home at about 8 o'clock that evening; my security detail was driving me," Comey said.

"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 from Mrs. Ashcroft from the hospital ... Mrs. Ashcroft reported that the call had come through, and that as a result of that call, Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were on their way to the hospital to see Mr. Ashcroft."

Comey said that he rushed to the hospital to arrive before the White House officials.

Comey testified that he believed President Bush had phoned Ashcroft's hospital room directly, and he was sure that the call "came from the White House." Mrs. Ashcroft was not allowing any calls to be taken by her ill husband. She then called Ashcroft's chief of staff to inform him that the White House was sending Gonzales and Card to the hospital to meet with the debilitated attorney general face to face.

At Ashcroft's bedside, Gonzales did most of the talking, Comey said, adding that Gonzales and Card pressed the attorney general to reauthorize the program in spite of reservations about its legality. Comey said Ashcroft reiterated his concerns and refused to sign the order reauthorizing the program.

Ashcroft "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, 'I'm not the attorney general,'" Comey said, adding that Gonzales and Card left the hospital that evening without a signature from the Justice Department allowing the surveillance program to continue.

"I was very upset. I was angry," Comey testified. "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 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."

The next day, March 10, 2004 the White House sidestepped the judicial process and signed off on the program anyway, and continued to monitor American citizens' communications in what appeared to be a violation of the law.

"The program was reauthorized without us and without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality," Comey said.

The meeting at George Washington University Hospital and the administration's total disregard of the law so disturbed Comey that he threatened to resign in protest, he told lawmakers.

"I prepared a letter of resignation, intending to resign the next day, Friday, March the 12th," Comey said. "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."

Comey added that FBI Director Robert Mueller was prepared to resign in protest, as well as were other officials in the Justice Department. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee that shortly thereafter he spoke to President Bush "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."

The revelations Tuesday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said, are just another example of the politicization of the Justice Department under the leadership of Gonzales.

In an interview with Truthout following Comey's testimony, Philip Heymann, a former deputy attorney general, said he believed Gonzales and the other White House officials had behaved like "thugs."

"This gives you an understanding of what Gonzales thinks about the Department of Justice," said Heymann, now a law professor at Harvard University. "You had the most complete form of legal deliberation over the NSA spying issue; hours of discussion between FBI, DOJ, the solicitor general, and through this process, the DOJ decides that the program is not legal. To do this by using a ploy - which couldn't possibly amount to a sound legal judgment, and in effect creating a war, with the Justice Department rallying its forces to uphold the law - the White House officials, led by Gonzales and Card, were behaving like thugs."

Matt Renner is a reporter for Truthout.

Jason Leopold is a former Los Angeles bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswire. He has written over 2,000 stories on the California energy crisis and received the Dow Jones Journalist of the Year Award in 2001 for his coverage on the issue as well as a Project Censored award in 2004. Leopold also reported extensively on Enron's downfall and was the first journalist to land an interview with former Enron president Jeffrey Skilling following Enron's bankruptcy filing in December 2001. Leopold has appeared on CNBC and National Public Radio as an expert on energy policy and has also been the keynote speaker at more than two dozen energy industry conferences around the country.

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