Former Justice Department official describes illegal actions by Bush
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Editor, The Konformist
World Socialist Web Site
Former Justice Department official describes illegal actions by Bush
administration in defense of domestic spying
By Joe Kay
17 May 2007
In congressional testimony on Tuesday, a former top Justice
Department official described how White House officials resorted to
extraordinary actions to defend the administration's illegal
warrantless domestic wiretapping program. The testimony provides a
portrait of an administration that operates outside of the law in
the prosecution of a historically unprecedented attack on democratic
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey spoke before the Senate
Judiciary Committee, answering questions from New York Democrat
Charles Schumer. Comey gave details of a dispute between the White
House and high-ranking officials in the Justice Department,
including then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, over the National
Security Agency (NSA) warrentless electronic surveillance operation
initiated by executive order shortly after the September 11, 2001
attacks. The dispute was first reported in the press in early 2006,
but only in its broad outlines.
The wiretapping program involves spying on international phone calls
and emails by people in the United States without the benefit of a
court-issued warrant, in violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act (FISA). It was so blatantly illegal that it
provoked sharp opposition within the Justice Department, with Bush-
appointee Ashcroft and Comey refusing to certify the program's
legality when it was up for reauthorization in 2004.
Comey was at the time (early March 2004) the acting attorney
general, because Ashcroft was incapacitated following surgery for
pancreatitis. Comey described how White House officials, angered by
his refusal to certify the program's legality, sought to pressure
Ashcroft behind Comey's back to give his approval. Those most
directly involved were then-White House Counsel and current Attorney
General Alberto Gonzales and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew
Card, backed by Vice President Dick Cheney.
"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 concludedthe
department as a wholeit was unable to certify as to its legality,"
Comey did not give details on the nature of the Justice Department's
objections, nor what was eventually done to mollify its concerns. He
refused even to explicitly confirm that he was speaking about the
NSA program, citing its classified nature.
The dispute between the Justice Department and the White House
emerged after a review by the Justice Department's Office of Legal
Counsel found that there was no legal foundation for the spying
In line with previous discussions with Ashcroft and the
recommendations of the department, Comey refused to give his
approval. The details of what happened next provide a picture of the
type of methods employed by the White House, even against opponents
within the administration itself.
Ashcroft's wife, who had banned visitors to Ashcroft while he was
recovering from surgery, called Ashcroft's assistant on March 10,
2004 to inform him that she had received a call, and that Card and
Gonzales would be visiting the disabled attorney general. Asked who
made this call to Ashcroft's wife, Comey testified, "I have some
recollection that the call was from the president himself, but I
don't know that for sure. It came from the White House."
Comey, informed by Ashcroft's assistant of the pending visit, moved
quickly to intervene. Jumping into his car, he "told my security
detail that I needed to get to George Washington Hospital
immediately. They turned on the emergency equipment and drove [with
emergency lights flashing and siren blaring] very quickly to the
hospital." Arriving at the hospital he "literally ran up the stairs
with my security detail."
Comey was clearly concerned that Card and Gonzales would pressure a
half-conscious Ashcroft to sign onto the spying program without
fully realizing what he was doing. Comey, however, arrived at
Ashcroft's hospital bed first. "I immediately began speaking to
him," Comey testified, "trying to orient him as to time and place,
and trying 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."
Comey was so concerned that the White House officials would resort
to thuggish behavior he called then-FBI Director Robert Mueller and
had Mueller instruct the FBI agents present in Ashcroft's room "not
to allow me to be removed from the room under any circumstances."
After a few minutes, Gonzales and Card arrived, and Gonzales began
speaking with Ashcroft, asking him to reauthorize the program.
Ashcroft refused, on the basis of the discussion with Comey and
previous discussions in the Justice Department. According to
Comey, "As he laid back down, he said, `But that doesn't matter,
because I'm not the attorney general. There is the attorney
general,' and he pointed to me ... The two men did not acknowledge
me. They turned and walked from the room."
Shortly after this interview, Card called Comey and demanded that he
attend a meeting in the White House that evening. Again evidently
convinced that the White House would resort to thuggish or
underhanded methods, he insisted that he would not meet at the White
House without a witness, choosing Theodore Olson, the solicitor
Unable to secure Comey's support, the White House decided to go
ahead with the program anyway. "The program was reauthorized without
us and without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting
as to its legality," Comey said.
This is an extraordinary revelation. The Bush administration, in
violation of the legal opinion of its own Justice Department
presumably responsible for upholding the lawwent ahead with a
program that involves unprecedented attacks on the democratic rights
of the American people.
In response to this move, Comey says that he, Ashcroft and Mueller
prepared to resign from the administration. This evidently prompted
the White House to engage in some damage control to prevent an open
rupture. Bush held a personal meeting with both Comey and Mueller,
and some sort of arrangement was worked out to allow the spying
program to continue, with the Justice Department officials giving
their formal approval a few weeks later.
Comey would not give any details about what the nature of this
agreement was, but it did not involve any fundamental changes to the
program, which has continued to be used to spy on Americans without
warrants. Indeed, the very existence of the program was not revealed
until December of 2005.
This testimony speaks volumes about the modus operandi of the Bush
administration. Comey was a top official in the administration. He
was intimately familiar with the types of methods used by the White
House, and his response in the dispute with Gonzales and Card was no
doubt based on his prior experiences.
The Washington Post, in an editorial on Wednesday, spoke of
a "lawlessness so shocking that it would have been unbelievable
coming from a less reputable source." This is indeed the basic
character of the Bush administrationin its handling of domestic
spying, the war in Iraq, and every other aspect of its policy.
The incident also underscores the illegality of the program itself.
Ashcroft, one of the principal architects of the Patriot Act and
similar legislation, is not known for his defense of democratic
rights. That he, Mueller and Comey felt they had to oppose the White
House is an indication of how unprecedented the new spying measures
of the Bush administration were.
A year-and-a-half after the NSA spying program was first revealed to
the public, its breadth and depth still remain unknown. What is
clear, however, is that the Bush administration has begun compiling
vast databases of phone calls, phone records, emails and other
communications in violation of the FISA Act.
In 2006, a US Federal court ruled the NSA program unconstitutional
and illegal, a decision that is currently under appeal. Meanwhile,
the Bush administration is seeking Congressional approval for
changes in the FISA Act that would expand government powers. The
White House continues to insist, however, that whatever the law, the
president has the constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to
spy on the American people.
There are ample grounds for impeaching everyone involved in
implementing these policies, including the president and vice
president. Arlen Specter, the lone Republican senator to attend the
hearing on Tuesday, noted that the story "has some characteristics
of the Saturday Night Massacre." He was referring to Nixon's
dismissal of the special prosecutor into the Watergate scandal
Archibald Cox, and the subsequent resignations of the attorney
general and the deputy attorney general.
The Saturday Night Massacre led eventually to the initiation of
impeachment proceedings and the subsequent resignation of Nixon. In
fact, the lawlessness of the Bush administration makes the actions
of Nixon in Watergate look like petty theft.
In spite of this, very little has been made by the Democratic Party
of the illegal spying program and the broader attacks on democratic
rights, and there have been no serious calls for impeachment. On the
contrary, Democratic congressional leaders such as House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi have insisted repeatedly that there will be no move to
impeach Bush, and this stance has been publicly defended by a number
of so-called "anti-war" Democrats in Congress.
In fact, the Democrats do not have any principled disagreements with
the Bush administration's attack on the democratic rights of the
It should be recalled that Senate Democrats helped give NSA chief
Michael Hayden, who oversaw the illegal domestic spying program, a
78-15 confirmation vote to head the Central Intelligence Agency in
May 2006, and they refused to filibuster Gonzales' nomination to
head the Justice Department in February 2005. Among those voting for
Hayden was Charles Schumer.
Since they took control of Congress in January, the Democrats have
said next to nothing about the NSA spying program and other
unconstitutional domestic surveillance operations. Comey himself was
called to testify in connection with the scandal surrounding the
firing of US attorneys, not NSA warrantless wiretapping.