TIME’s Barton Gellman dug into Dick Cheney’s new memoir and has uncovered discrepancies in his telling of the infamous dramatic hospital room confrontation at Attorney General John Ashcroft’s bedside. At issue was the attorney general’s refusal to reauthorize the secret warrantless wiretapping operation known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program:
Cheney’s version of this story adds a stunning twist: Ashcroft told Bush on the phone, before [White House Counsel Alberto] Gonzales and [White House Chief of Staff Andrew] Card arrived, “that he would sign the documents” to certify the surveillance as lawful. But the two men found [Deputy Attorney General James] Comey there when they arrived, Cheney writes, and “it became immediately clear that Ashcroft had changed his mind.” Only then, Cheney suggests, did the White House aides learn that Ashcroft “had delegated all the responsibilities of his office to the Deputy Attorney General.”
Gellman says that Comey and four other officials told him that Mrs. Ashcroft rebuffed two attempts by White House officials to speak to her husband. A 2009 inspector general’s report (PDF) cites Ashcroft’s FBI security detail also saying Mrs. Ashcroft refused to put through a call from the president.
Even if Ashcroft picked up the phone, there are many reasons to doubt Cheney’s version of the call. It would mean that Bush discussed a codeword-classified intelligence program on an open phone line; that Ashcroft took exactly the opposite position that he took before and after the call; and that the attorney general was even coherent. Those around Ashcroft that evening say he was heavily doped on morphine, slipping in and out of awareness. “I found him barely conscious,” Comey said in an interview. “I had trouble getting him focused, oriented as to time and place.” Mueller wrote in contemporary notes that Ashcroft was “feeble, barely articulate.”
Even harder to credit is Cheney’s suggestion that the White House did not know until that moment that Comey had assumed Ashcroft’s powers. David Ayres, Ashcroft’s chief of staff, called deputy White House chief of staff Joe Hagin from the emergency room a full week earlier, on March 4, to say the attorney general was incapacitated. The next day, Justice sent formal notice to Gonzales’s deputy, David Leitch, that Comey had taken the reins. On March 6, newspapers and broadcast networks carried variations of this report from CNN: “Deputy Attorney General James Comey is acting as attorney general while Ashcroft is hospitalized.” For the next four days, Comey repeatedly filled in for Ashcroft in White House meetings. In one of them, Bush asked after Ashcroft’s health and Comey replied, “Not well.”
In 2007, Jack Goldsmith, the Justice Department official who raised questions about the legality of the program, told FRONTLINE his version of what happened in Ashcroft’s hospital room:
… in walked Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, and Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff. There were some very brief pleasantries about the attorney general’s health. Judge Gonzales had an envelope in his hand, and it became apparent that he was there to ask the attorney general to authorize this program that it was known that I and Jim Comey did not think the Department of Justice could authorize.
Gonzales spoke very briefly, and then, in one of the most extraordinary events I’ve ever seen in my life, Attorney General Ashcroft kind of lifted himself — he arose from the bed, lifted himself up and gave about a two- or three-minute speech or talk, addressed to Gonzales and Card in which he basically — I can’t get into the details, but he showed enormous, unbelievable clarity about what the issues were and what was going on, and he explained why he also would not approve the program. He read them a bit of the riot act, and then at the end of all this he said, “And in any event, I’m not the attorney general now; Jim Comey is,” because Jim Comey was the acting attorney general.
And with that extraordinary performance — and it was just one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen in my life, because he went from seeming near death to having this amazing moment of clarity — he just again receded into the bed. I really worried at that point that he was going to expire. It looked like he gave it the last of his energy. It was an intense, unbelievable scene. Gonzales and Card quickly left, and that was the end of it.
Gellman, who has written a biography of Cheney, suggests that the relationship between Cheney and Bush, who was unaware of the Justice Department’s objections to the program until the last minute, was never the same: “March 11, 2004 was the day the president of the United States discovered that the vice president’s zeal could lead him off a cliff.”