01/01/2006 01:00:00 AM
Ashcroft aide balked at spy plan
White House took issue to AG, in hospital after 2004 surgery
By Eric Lichtblau and James Risen
The New York Times
Washington - The top deputy to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft
refused two years ago to approve important parts of the secret program
that allows domestic eavesdropping without warrants.
This prompted two leading White House aides to try to win the needed
approval from Ashcroft himself while he was hospitalized after a gall
bladder operation, according to officials knowledgeable about the episode.
With Ashcroft recuperating in March 2004, his deputy, James Comey, who
was then acting as attorney general, was unwilling to give his
certification to crucial aspects of the classified program, as required
under the procedures set up by the White House, said the officials, who
asked for anonymity because the program is classified and they are not
authorized to discuss it publicly.
That prompted two of Bush's top aides - Andrew Card, his chief of staff,
and Alberto Gonzales, then White House counsel and now the attorney
general - to make an emergency visit to George Washington University
Hospital to review the program with Ashcroft during what aides have
described as a difficult recovery, the officials said.
The White House and Ashcroft, through spokesmen, declined to comment
Saturday on the meeting.
"As the president has stated, the intelligence activities that have been
under way to prevent future terrorist attacks have been approved at the
highest levels of the Justice Department," said Jeannie Mamo, a White
Accounts from other officials differed as to exactly what was said at
the meeting at the hospital. Some officials indicated that Ashcroft,
like his deputy, was reluctant to sign off on continuing with aspects of
the program in light of concerns among some senior officials about the
program's legality and its controls.
It was unclear whether the White House ultimately persuaded Ashcroft to
approve the program or the White House moved ahead without his concurrence.
What is known is that in early 2004, about the time of the hospital
meeting, the White House suspended parts of the surveillance program for
several months and moved ahead with more stringent requirements on the
National Security Agency on how the program was used.
The Justice Department's concerns appear to have led, at least in part,
to that suspension, and it was the Justice Department that oversaw an
audit conducted on the program.
The audit examined a selection of cases to see how the NSA went about
determining that it had probable cause to believe that people in the
United States, including American citizens, had sufficient ties to
al-Qaeda to justify the extraordinary step of eavesdropping on their
phone calls and e-mail messages without a court warrant. That review is
not known to have found any instances of documented abuses.
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