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Comey’s Testimony Reveals Gonzales’ Role in Wiretapping

May 16, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT

JAMES COMEY, Former Deputy Attorney General: That night was probably the most difficult night of my professional life, so it’s not something I forget.

MARGARET WARNER: With that, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, appearing yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, began his dramatic description of the events of Wednesday, March 10, 2004.

Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had just undergone emergency gallbladder surgery at George Washington University Hospital, and Comey was serving as acting attorney general. At that same time, White House officials were seeking Justice Department recertification of the secret domestic wiretapping program conducted by the National Security Agency.

Comey said he and Ashcroft had discussed the program a week earlier and had decided against recertifying it.

JAMES COMEY: Over the next week, particularly the following week, on Tuesday, 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…

A visit to Ashcroft's hospital room

MARGARET WARNER: Under questioning by New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, Comey said that, on the evening of March 10th -- one day before the program's authorization was due to expire -- he learned that then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card were on their way to Ashcroft's hospital room.

JAMES COMEY: ... told my security detail that I needed to get to George Washington Hospital immediately. They turned on the emergency equipment and drove very quickly to the hospital. I got out of the car and ran up, literally ran up the stairs with my security detail.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: What was your concern? You were in obviously a huge hurry.

JAMES COMEY: I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that. And it was only a matter of minutes that the door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card.

They came over and stood by the bed, greeted the attorney general very briefly, and then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there: to seek his approval for a matter. And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me. He lifted his head off the pillow and, in very strong terms, expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which...

Comey's decision to leave

MARGARET WARNER: Comey said Card and Gonzales left, but within minutes he got a call from Card.

JAMES 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."

I was very upset; I was angry. 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.

MARGARET WARNER: Comey pulled then-Solicitor General Ted Olson out of a dinner party, and the two met late with Card and Gonzales at the White House. The next day, Comey said, he learned the wiretapping program had been reauthorized without Justice Department approval. Comey drafted a letter of resignation.

JAMES COMEY: 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.

Changes to the wiretapping program

MARGARET WARNER: Comey said he was told others, including FBI Director Robert Mueller and Ashcroft, also were prepared to resign. But on March 12th, Comey and Mueller met separately with President Bush. The president told Mueller to amend the wiretapping program to meet the Justice Department's standards for legality.

JAMES COMEY: And so we then set out to do that, and we did that.

MARGARET WARNER: This past January, the Justice Department announced a secret court would oversee the surveillance program. James Comey continued to work at the Justice Department until August 2005.