Domestic spying program was `without legal basis,’ ex-official says
By Jonathan S. Landay and Marisa Taylor
McClatchy Newspapers, (MCT)
WASHINGTON – 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.
In testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey said that those he believed were prepared to quit included then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Comey said then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card visited Ashcroft as he lay gravely ill in a hospital bed on March 10, 2004, and pressed him to re-certify the program’s legality. Ashcroft refused.
“I was angry. I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very seriously sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general because they had been transferred to me,” Comey recalled. “I thought it was improper.”
Comey, who’d assumed Ashcroft’s powers on an acting basis, had raced ahead of Gonzales and Card to the George Washington University Hospital, his car’s emergency lights flashing, and dashed up the stairs to Ashcroft’s room, trailed by his security detail.
“That night was probably the most difficult time of my professional life,” Comey recalled.
Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief counsel, David Addington, also challenged the Justice Department’s stand on the legality of the program, which was intended to detect terrorist threats and would have expired on March 11, 2004, if Bush hadn’t reauthorized it, he said.
The revelations dealt a new blow to Gonzales’ efforts to keep his job as Ashcroft’s successor amid congressional and Justice Department investigations into whether he’s politicized his agency with the pursuit of alleged voter fraud, the screening of job applicants based on their party affiliations, and the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, which Gonzales said Tuesday were overseen by Comey’s successor, Paul McNulty.
Comey’s testimony also raised new questions about the administration’s repeated assurances that the monitoring program has been conducted legally and that Americans’ constitutional right to privacy has been fully respected.
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