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High Drama -- and High Crimes?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 16, 2007; 1:04 PM

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey's gripping testimony yesterday about his high-speed race to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital bedside -- and the ensuing standoff with senior White House aides over the administration's warrantless wiretapping program -- may turn out to be the political-scandal equivalent of the tune nobody can get out of their heads.

It might not stack up as the most momentous of the accusations against the Bush White House. But it features a compelling narrative, an irreproachable witness and a serious charge of wrongdoing. At heart, Comey's tale is about a White House that refused to stand down even when its own Justice Department determined that what it was doing was illegal.

Here is the transcript of Comey's testimony. Here is the video. Read it or watch it -- and I dare you to tell me this story is going away anytime soon.

The Coverage

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "On the night of March 10, 2004, as Attorney General John D. Ashcroft lay ill in an intensive-care unit, his deputy, James B. Comey, received an urgent call.

"White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., were on their way to the hospital to persuade Ashcroft to reauthorize Bush's domestic surveillance program, which the Justice Department had just determined was illegal.

"In vivid testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, Comey said he alerted FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and raced, sirens blaring, to join Ashcroft in his hospital room, arriving minutes before Gonzales and Card. Ashcroft, summoning the strength to lift his head and speak, refused to sign the papers they had brought. Gonzales and Card, who had never acknowledged Comey's presence in the room, turned and left.

"The sickbed visit was the start of a dramatic showdown between the White House and the Justice Department in early 2004 that, according to Comey, was resolved only when Bush overruled Gonzales and Card. But that was not before Ashcroft, Comey, Mueller and their aides prepared a mass resignation, Comey said. The domestic spying by the National Security Agency continued for several weeks without Justice approval, he said."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "In hair-raising testimony before a Senate committee yesterday, Jim Comey, the former No. 2 official at the Justice Department, described what might be called the Wednesday Night Massacre of March 10, 2004."

Andrew Zajac writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The committee's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, compared the power struggle described by Comey with the 1973 so-called Saturday Night Massacre, when the attorney general and deputy attorney general resigned rather than obey President Richard Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.

"Though his topic was bureaucratic infighting, Comey's account crackled with the kind of tension more often found in a suspense novel."

Jonathan S. Landay and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Bush administration ran its warrantless eavesdropping program without the Justice Department's approval for up to three weeks in 2004, nearly triggering a mass resignation of the nation's top law enforcement officials, the former No. 2 official disclosed Tuesday. . . .

"Comey's account was 'some of the most powerful testimony I've heard in 25 years as a legislator,' said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis."

Charlie Savage explains some of the backstory in the Boston Globe: "After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor Americans' international phone calls and e-mails without court oversight. The once-secret program bypassed a 1978 law that requires warrants, but the administration legal team asserted that presidents have the wartime power, as commander in chief, to set aside laws at their own discretion.

"In early 2004, several Justice officials who were not in office at the launch of the NSA program began questioning whether it violated civil liberties. Jack Goldsmith , the new head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, said he doubted that the program was lawful. After listening to Goldsmith, Comey and Ashcroft agreed, Comey said.

"The program was set to expire on March 11, 2004, unless the attorney general recertified that it was legal. That week, however, Ashcroft was hospitalized with pancreatitis, and Comey became the acting attorney general. Comey told the White House that he would not sign off on it, setting up the dramatic confrontation."

The Cast of Characters

As for who was behind all this, let's be blunt: Nobody who knows the players can seriously believe that Gonzales and Card were acting on their own. Neither has ever been known for his original thinking. When they served at the White House -- and in Gonzales's case, even after he left to become attorney general -- their role was to be loyal soldiers.

So who was telling them what to do? It doesn't take a whole lot of guesswork. The warrantless spying program -- like virtually all of the Bush era measures that have pushed executive power well past historic boundaries -- was born in Vice President Dick Cheney's office. Cheney and David S. Addington, who is now his chief of staff, were its champions.

From yesterday's testimony:

"SPECTER: Well, Mr. Comey, did you have discussions with anybody else in the administration who disagreed with your conclusions?

"COMEY: Yes, sir.

"SPECTER: Who else?

"COMEY: Vice president.

"SPECTER: Anybody else?

"COMEY: Members of his staff.

"SPECTER: Who on his staff?

"COMEY: Mr. Addington disagreed with the conclusion."

Bush's Role

Another fascinating aspect of Comey's story is that while Card wouldn't level with Comey -- not to mention negotiate -- once Comey and FBI chief Robert Mueller were actually able to speak to Bush directly, the president apparently agreed to make some changes to the program that his top aides were unwilling to consider.

After the hospital-room stand-off, Card summoned Comey. From the transcript:

"COMEY: Mr. Card was very upset and demanded that I come to the White House immediately. 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.'"

That conversation eventually took place, but Comey said it resolved nothing.

"SCHUMER: OK. 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. . . .

"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."

Technically speaking, Comey explained, Bush signed the presidential order himself but the signature line for the attorney general to attest to its legality was apparently left blank.

"SCHUMER: Thank you. 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."

What was that direction? What precisely changed about either the program or its rationale? Three years later, we still don't know.

Gonzales Watch

Rachel Van Dongen writes for Roll Call (subscription required) that "instead of running out of steam as Gonzales stubbornly hangs on to his job, the investigation into what Democrats call the 'politicization of the Justice Department' shows absolutely no signs of faltering on Capitol Hill.

"In fact, after ex-Deputy Attorney General James Comey's dramatic testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday morning, the probe instead may be gaining momentum."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times that Comey's testimony "added fuel to the debate about whether Gonzales is fit to run the Justice Department.

"'I would say what happened in that hospital room crystallized Mr. Gonzales' view about the rule of law: that he holds it in minimum low regard,' Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading Gonzales critic, said at the hearing. 'It's hard to understand after hearing this story how Atty. Gen. Gonzales could remain as attorney general, how any president -- Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative -- could allow him to continue.' . . .

"At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow told reporters that Bush has 'full confidence in Alberto Gonzales.' He refused to discuss Comey's testimony, which he described as 'old conversations.'

"'You've got somebody who's got splashy testimony on Capitol Hill. Good for him,' Snow said."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate that Democrats "have failed so far to take down Attorney General Alberto Gonzales with tales of the man's hackery, sycophancy, and boundless apathy. But now we're being treated to a graphic retelling of the AG's efforts to browbeat a critically ill man into signing off on the National Security Agency's illegal surveillance program."

Opinion Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "James B. Comey, the straight-as-an-arrow former No. 2 official at the Justice Department, yesterday offered the Senate Judiciary Committee an account of Bush administration lawlessness so shocking it would have been unbelievable coming from a less reputable source. . . .

"Mr. Comey's vivid depiction, worthy of a Hollywood script, showed the lengths to which the administration and the man who is now attorney general were willing to go to pursue the surveillance program. First, they tried to coerce a man in intensive care -- a man so sick he had transferred the reins of power to Mr. Comey -- to grant them legal approval. Having failed, they were willing to defy the conclusions of the nation's chief law enforcement officer and pursue the surveillance without Justice's authorization. Only in the face of the prospect of mass resignations -- Mr. Comey, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and most likely Mr. Ashcroft himself -- did the president back down. . . .

"The dramatic details should not obscure the bottom line: the administration's alarming willingness, championed by, among others, Vice President Cheney and his counsel, David Addington, to ignore its own lawyers. . . .

"That Mr. Gonzales is now in charge of the department he tried to steamroll may be most disturbing of all."

Glenn Greenwald blogs for Salon: "The overarching point here, as always, is that it is simply crystal clear that the President consciously and deliberately violated the law and committed multiple felonies by eavesdropping on Americans in violation of the law. . . .

"What more glaring and clear evidence do we need that the President of the United States deliberately committed felonies, knowing that his conduct lacked any legal authority? And what justifies simply walking away from these serial acts of deliberate criminality? At this point, how can anyone justify the lack of criminal investigations or the appointment of a Special Counsel? The President engaged in extremely serious conduct that the law expressly criminalizes and which his own DOJ made clear was illegal. . . .

"How is this not a major scandal on the level of the greatest presidential corruption and lawbreaking scandals in our country's history? Why is this only a one-day story that will focus on the hospital drama but not on what it reveals about the bulging and unparalleled corruption of this administration and the complete erosion of the rule of law in our country? And, as I've asked times before, if we passively allow the President to simply break the law with impunity in how the government spies on our conversations, what don't we allow?

"If we had a functioning political press, these are the questions that would be dominating our political discourse and which would have been resolved long ago."

Meet the War Czar

Bush repeatedly says that when it comes to military decisions in Iraq, he listens to the commanders in the field. Yet his decision earlier this year to send more troops to Iraq was almost universally opposed by those very commanders.

Yesterday, Bush took the unusual step of tapping as his new "war czar" one of the commanders he didn't listen to.

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "President Bush tapped Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute yesterday to serve as a new White House 'war czar' overseeing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, choosing a low-key soldier who privately expressed skepticism about sending more troops to Iraq during last winter's strategy review.

"In the newly created position, Lute will coordinate often disjointed military and civilian operations and manage the Washington side of the same troop increase he resisted before Bush announced the plan in January. Bush hopes an empowered aide working in the White House and answering directly to him will be able to cut through bureaucracy that has hindered efforts in Iraq. . . .

"By joining the White House, [national security adviser Stephen J.] Hadley said, Lute can ensure that the economic and political elements of the plan are implemented. 'In some sense, he's part of the cure for the problems he was concerned about.' . . .

"Lute will face enormous obstacles four years into the war. 'The most serious problem everyone has in any coordinated approach to Iraq is that the problems are beyond his control -- including relations between the White House and Congress,' said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 'He is also a coordinator who works for a White House that has no long-term plan or strategy.' . . .

"Critics said the appointment underscores Bush's failures. 'Whatever the name of the position is, this proves the president is throwing in the towel when it comes to directing the military, and is giving up his constitutional role,' said Jon Soltz, co-founder of the antiwar VoteVets.org."

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times that "the appointment has puzzled some supporters of the Iraq war strategy.

"Lute was a key staff officer for Army Gen. John P. Abizaid when Abizaid headed all U.S. forces in the Middle East. Abizaid's war strategy differed in key respects from that of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the current top commander in Iraq and a proponent of a larger U.S. force."

And there are signs that Lute may not be quite as czar-like as all that.

"People close to the decision-making process said Lute's selection raised concerns about how a three-star general would be able to issue orders to top government officials, including to four-star generals such as Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who outrank him," Barnes and Spiegel write.

"One source involved in the decision said Lute would probably have less power than originally intended.

"Senior officials such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have backed Lute's appointment, in part because the new war czar is unlikely to challenge their power over Iraq policy."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that, according to Hadley, Lute now supports the surge.

"He said that General Lute, who helped to develop the strategy, had raised questions about whether 'Iraqi security forces would step up and contribute what they were supposed to do,' and whether the Iraqi government was committed to political reconciliation and providing economic resources.

"'We developed a strategy that we thought answered those questions,' Mr. Hadley said, adding, 'He's saying that he supports the strategy, very clearly supports the strategy.'"

Here's Ed Henry reporting for CNN yesterday evening: "[I]t's hard to understand who the president is going to please with this. On the left, you have Democrats like Rahm Emanuel saying the commander in chief is outscoring his commander in chief duties to another official. On the right, you have conservatives like Richard Perle charging that this shows dysfunction at the White House and these responsibilities should stay with the National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. What the White House is saying is ht Hadley has too much on his plate, he's managing two wars, dealing with hot spots like Iran and North Korea, and he needs help. But obviously four years into the Iraq war, a lot of people are scratching their heads wondering why did it take the White House so long to realize Hadley needs some help."

Lute's History

Peter Spiegel and Demetri Sevastopulo quoted Lute in the Financial Times in August 2005: "We believe at some point, in order to break this dependence on the . . . coalition, you simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward.

"You have to undercut the perception of occupation in Iraq. It's very difficult to do that when you have 150,000-plus, largely western, foreign troops occupying the country."

And here is Lute, via Think Progress, talking to PBS's Charlie Rose in January 2006:

"Whatever the political arguments, Charlie, there are at least two good operational reasons that we would like to see a smaller, lighter, less prominent U.S. force structure in Iraq. One is this perception of occupation that a large American force brings with it. Today, there are about 140,000 American troops on the ground in Iraq. We would like to bring that down and undercut the enemy propaganda that in fact we have designs on Iraqi resources or Iraqi bases and so forth, and that in fact we're really just masquerading as an occupation force. So we want to undercut that perception.

"The other thing, though, Charlie, is that we've learned in post-conflict scenarios like Iraq but elsewhere, in the Balkans and so forth, that if you're not careful to avoid what we call the dependency syndrome, that American soldiers will do it all, they'll do all that they can and then some. This is the sort of person we recruit into the armed forces today. And as they do it, those who we really want to do it, the Iraqi security forces, will be content to stand by and watch."

Wolfowitz Watch

Peter S. Goodman writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration softened its support for World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz yesterday, signaling a willingness to replace him if the bank's executive board resolves an ethics controversy without firing him.

"'All options are on the table,' said White House spokesman Tony Snow, addressing reporters at a morning briefing. 'Members of the board, Mr. Wolfowitz, need to sit down and figure out what is in fact going to be best for this bank. . . . '

"Senior Bush administration officials emphasized that the White House has not abandoned Wolfowitz and does not believe he should be fired. But the White House has concluded, through conversations with counterparts in foreign capitals and from the committee report, that Wolfowitz can no longer effectively head the institution, the officials said, speaking on the condition they not be named because they lacked authorization to discuss the matter publicly."

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "European and American officials said that senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. held a telephone conference with their counterparts at the leading industrial nations, raising the idea of a two-track approach to Mr. Wolfowitz.

"The first track, administration officials said, required the board to agree that while Mr. Wolfowitz had erred, so had others and that all had acted in good faith. . . .

"The second track would involve a discussion of 'all options,' as Mr. Snow and others put it, on what to do about Mr. Wolfowitz's future ability to lead the bank as a result of the deep antipathy he has engendered among the staff, the board, senior managers and finance ministries of major donor countries. . . .

"But there is so much distrust of the United States at the bank that some saw these and other comments as a feint designed to keep Mr. Wolfowitz in office."

William McQuillen writes for Bloomberg that Wolfowitz late yesterday "promised directors weighing his fate that he'll address complaints about his leadership of the world's largest development institution. . . .

"He conceded he had relied 'much too long' on advisers recruited from the Bush administration and promised to put more trust in bank vice presidents and give them more access. . . .

"Wolfowitz angered staffers and directors by recruiting senior advisers from the Bush administration who had little development experience while presiding over an exodus of veteran bank executives. One of his recruits, Kevin Kellems, a former spokesman for Vice President Dick Cheney, resigned May 7."

Farewell to Falwell

Bush issued a statement yesterday on the death of Jerry Falwell, the deeply polarizing founder of the Moral Majority: "Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family, and freedom. As the founder of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jerry lived a life of faith and called upon men and women of all backgrounds to believe in God and serve their communities."

Financial Reports

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that when it comes to gifts received in the past year, "Bush cleaned up in 2006 -- as usual.

"He received at least 20 gifts worth a total of $12,364, according to the financial disclosure forms the president and vice president are required by law to file each year. The reports, made public Tuesday, give a broad picture of officials' wealth -- listing assets, non-governmental income, transactions and financial arrangements as well as gifts in an attempt to provide some transparency about potential conflicts of interest. . . .

"Vice President Dick Cheney sprung for a $658 wireless weather station as a Christmas present for his boss, known to enjoy getting outdoors to hack at brush or ride trails. . . .

"Knowing where the commander in chief gets his thrills -- on his bike -- Cheney also gave Bush a $400 personal trainer and cycle computer for his birthday.

"Apparently the president and his No. 2 were thinking alike. At Christmas, Bush presented Cheney with $667 worth of instruments to measure temperature, barometric pressure and tides.

"Cheney's gift haul was sizably bigger than the president's.

"He received at least 15 presents totaling $21,674 in 2006, many reflecting the vice president's Wyoming roots and love of outdoor pursuits. They included three fishing rods .... worth $2,975, $615 leather hunting boots, a $400 cowboy hat and a $7,200 bronze sculpture of a Cheyenne warrior. The White House's senior staff ponied up $778 to buy him an iPod and compact disc collection."

Tabassum Zakaria and Caren Bohan write for Reuters: "President George W. Bush held assets worth $7.5 million to $20 million last year, but was eclipsed by his vice president's wealth, financial records released on Tuesday showed. . . .

"Cheney reported assets valued at $21 million to around $100 million. Cheney gained much of his wealth from his former role heading oil service firm Halliburton Co."

Tony Snow Watch

Ken Bazinet blogs for the New York Daily News that Tony Snow "deserves a medal -- or maybe a clue. . . .

"In a single day, the witty and articulate mouth of the Bush White House finds himself sugar-coating the following: a war that only Dick Cheney loves; Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' tumbling house of cards, and the second time during this administration that Paul Wolfowitz may have to resign in shame.

"But give him credit, even with two-thirds of the country giving Team Bush failing grades, he's still whistling a happy tune."

A Bubble Restorative

Max Blumenthal writes for Raw Story: "President George W. Bush met privately with Focus on the Family Founder and Chairman James Dobson and approximately a dozen Christian right leaders last week to rally support for his policies on Iraq, Iran and the so-called 'war on terror.' . . .

"Dobson described Bush as 'upbeat and determined and convinced,' adding, 'I wish the American people could have sat in on that meeting we had.'"

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on Cheney's trophy kill; Ann Telnaes on Bush's body armor.

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