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Comey Sheds Light on Gonzales; Immigration Bill Progresses

Political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the testimony of former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, Paul Wolfowitz's departure from the World Bank, the Senate immigration bill, and the new Iraq and Afghanistan "war czar."

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    David, the conventional wisdom has it, as you know, that the testimony of James Comey, former number-two at the Justice Department, what he said this week about Gonzales, et cetera, means Gonzales is even in more serious trouble. Do you agree, for one?

  • DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times:

    He was finished three weeks ago. He was more finished, and now he's extremely more finished.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Extremely more finished?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, it was debilitating, in part because it was cinematic. People thought he was a mediocrity. They didn't think he was chasing down sick people in hospital beds.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Yes, tell the story quickly.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    The essential story was, there was a dispute within the Justice Department over a secret operation, what we think was the NSA scandal or the NSA operation. The Office of Legal Counsel said, "We think this is not constitutional. We don't want to approve this scandal." The real attorney general, John Ashcroft, was sick. He was in a hospital bed, I think with gallbladder problems.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That's right, gallbladder.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    And the acting attorney general said, "No, we're not approving." And so the supposition that somebody from the White House…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That was Comey, James Comey.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    That was the James Comey, and the supposition is that somebody from the White House told the two top assistants in the White House, Gonzales and Andy Card, who was then chief of staff, "Go down to the hospital. Talk to Ashcroft. Get him to sign the approval."

    And Comey got word of this. He beat Card and Gonzales to the hospital bed of Ashcroft, briefed him while he seemed semi-comatose at the time, and Ashcroft arose, when Gonzales and Card showed up, and said, "No, I'm not going to approve this. And that man over there," pointing to Comey, "is the acting attorney general, not me, because I'm in the hospital."

    And so what it was, was the White House really trying to go around the normal procedure. And that's what has people upset. And it is so demoralizing for people in the White House, in the Republican Party.

    I had two officials today say, "You know, it's an empty suit. The guy's an empty suit. What is he doing?" And it is so demoralizing for people on the president's team that they have to defend this guy. You can imagine the rest of Washington.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    But they are defending him, Mark. I mean, day after day after day, they're defending him.

  • MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:

    They are, Jim, but I think this one is especially tough. Just a couple of things to add to it.

    It wasn't simply Comey, the deputy attorney general, or Ashcroft. It was the FBI director, Robert Mueller, who was there, as well, and said, "We will quit. We will resign if you try and go over our heads on this and ignore our policy decision." Now, this is…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And that policy decision, to clarify, was to…

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Was to suspend what had been the FISA requirement for eavesdropping on American civilians.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    That's right, OK.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And, Jim, the important thing is, this was March of 2004. This was a presidential election year. If you get the FBI director, the attorney general, and the deputy attorney general all resigning on a matter of principle at a time like that, it would have been a political firestorm. So they couldn't handle that.

    The other complication is this: Attorney General Gonzales testified in February of 2006, two years later, that there had been no dispute, in his own testimony, there had been no dispute about this matter. So finding out that this happened two years earlier puts him, once again, at odds with the truth.

    And the administration is there with him. I don't know if it's a sense of loyalty. I think it's obviously of deep concern.

    The only person who could pass confirmation at this point would be a professional who is not a loyal Bushie, who has come with an independent reputation of integrity and character, and then, if that person goes in as a straight arrow and finds that there has been political meddling at the department, the kind that would feel duty-bound to blow the whistle on that. So they're really in a very difficult place.