Thursday, May 17, 2007

James Comey: A Round-Up

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Reams have been written in the last couple of days about James Comey's Senate testimony about Alberto Gonzales' and Andrew Card's attempt to get an ailing John Ashcroft to sign off on an extension to the NSA surveillance program, but so far I have not seen a comprehensive round-up, so I am going to attempt one here.

Anonymous Liberal and Paul Kiel have highly readable summaries of what happened the night of March 10, 2004. A.L. gives us some takeaways, here, and posts the link to the transcript. Via Jane Hamsher, the YouTube video is here. I've watched it; it's jaw-dropping.

Comey's testimony raises a lot of new questions about the illegal NSA surveillance program; it also revives many old questions that remain unanswered. Glenn Greenwald explores that aspect in a long, detailed, multiply updated article at his Salon blog.

Via Josh Marshall, the New York Times and the Washington Post both imply that Gonzales and Card acted on their own, but as Josh points out, Comey himself suggested otherwise. Marty Lederman agrees with Josh.

At Think Progress: Nico posts about Pres. Bush's "[direct involvement] in the effort to override the administration’s own lawyers and reauthorize the warrantless spying program despite an 'extensive review' by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel stating 'that the program did not comply with the law.' "

And Amanda writes that a group of senators, including Russ Feingold, are asking Gonzales to explain the contradiction between Comey's account of the confrontation at AG Ashcroft's bedside in 2004 and Gonzales' sworn testimony in 2006 that "there was no serious disagreement about the program."

Jonathan Stein at finds a laugh out loud in Tuesday's testimony:

Today, I found this entertaining tidbit fromComey's testimony. Comey is speaking with Arlen Specter, senator from Pennsylvania.

SPECTER: Can you give us an example of an exercise of good judgment by Alberto Gonzales?
[Gap in testimony.]
SPECTER: Let the record show a very long pause.
COMEY: It's hard -- I mean, I'm sure there are examples. I'll think of some. I mean, it's hard when you look back. We worked together for eight months.
SPECTER: That's a famous statement of President Eisenhower about Vice President Nixon: "Say something good." "Give me two weeks."
COMEY: Right.

At a press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Tony Snow dismissed Comey's anger at what he felt was an attempt by Gonzales and Card to take advantage of a sick man: "Trying to take advantage of a sick man -- because he had an appendectomy, his brain didn't work?"

Nice, huh? And to think I felt compassion for Snow when he told us his cancer had come back.

Via Balkinization, Ben Wittes has a must-read piece at The New Republic. (Use BugMeNot if you don't like to fill out free registration information.) Wittes make a point that cannot be overstated [bolds mine]:

At least as Comey relates it, this affair is not one of mere bad judgment or over-aggressiveness. It is a story of profound misconduct on Gonzales's part that, at least in my judgment, borders on the impeachable. Put bluntly, faced with a Justice Department determination that the NSA's program contained prohibitive legal problems, the White House decided to go ahead with it anyway. In pursuit of this goal, Gonzales did two things that both seem unforgivable: He tried to get a seriously ill man to unlawfully exercise powers that had been conveyed to another man and to use those powers to approve a program the department deemed unlawful. Then, when Ashcroft refused, the White House went ahead and authorized the program on its own. In terms of raw power, the president has the ability to take this step. But it constitutes a profound affront to the institutional role of the Justice Department as it has developed. The Justice Department is the part of the government that defines the law for the executive branch. For the White House counsel to defy its judgment on an important legal question is to put the rawest power ahead of the law.

The much-derided John Ashcroft, on the other hand, showed himself when it counted to be a man of courage and substance whom history will surely treat more kindly than did contemporary commentary. Few attorneys general get tested as Ashcroft did that night in 2004. One can disagree with him about a lot of things and still recognize the fact that ultimately, he passed the hardest test: From a hospital bed in intensive care, he stood up for the rule of law. More broadly, the Justice Department seems to have performed admirably across the board--from the OLC having taken its job seriously, to the willingness on the part of the department brass and Mueller to lose their jobs to defend the department's ability to determine the law for the executive branch. Had the story ended with Comey's victory, it would have been an ugly crisis with a happy ending.

But it didn't end there. Less than a year later, Gonzales replaced Ashcroft as Comey's boss. Within a year of that, none of the four people who had stood up to Gonzales in that hospital room remained in government. Goldsmith was already gone. Comey stayed on for a few months and then joined the private sector. He testified that Philbin, who returned to private practice in 2005, was "blocked from a promotion, I believed, as a result of this particular matter." In the long run, in other words, the bad guys won. The ranks of people willing to say no to the White House thinned. And without that strong cadre in the political echelons, the department has suffered terribly. That is what's behind the U.S. attorney scandal and the horrid allegations that career appointees were subjected to political litmus tests.

That, and the complicity of the U.S. media in allowing the Bush administration to get away with gross violations of law and abuses of power, all the time making only the most anemic efforts to question administration denials and alibis -- when they were questioned at all. Glenn writes about that, in connection with Fred Hiatt's editorial in the Washington Post today:

The Washington Post Editorial page has been one of the most establishment-defending organs over the last six years, repeatedly minimizing or dismissing criticisms of the Bush administration and reserving its vigor primarily for attacking Bush critics (and for supporting the Iraq war). That's what makes its Editorial this morning regarding James Comey's testimony -- entitled "The Gonzales Coverup" -- so striking, and potentially indicative of a compelled acknowledgement by the Beltway class of how serious the NSA scandal is and how serious it has been all along.

The Editorial begins with this question and answer:

Why is it only now that the disturbing story of the Bush administration's willingness to override the legal advice of its own Justice Department is emerging? The chief reason is that the administration, in the person of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, stonewalled congressional inquiries and did its best to ensure that the shameful episode never came to light.

The Editorial is referring to the series of steps Gonzales took back in February of last year -- which I documented here -- whereby Gonzales, along with other DOJ officials, successfully blocked Ashcroft and Comey from testifying about the DOJ internal rebellion by falsely insisting they had nothing to add.

And that's all true enough. As has been the case repeatedly over the last six years, the administration issued false denials of wrongdoing and then expected/demanded we place blind faith in those assurances and thereby accept that there was no need to investigate further or compel disclosure of their conduct. After all, the administration itself has assured us that there was no wrongdoing here, that there were safeguards in place, etc. etc.

But the equally significant answer to Hiatt's question -- "why is it only now that the disturbing story of the Bush administration's willingness to override the legal advice of its own Justice Department is emerging?" -- is that the Beltway establishment, led by the likes of Hiatt, decided that the President's lawbreaking was really nothing to be too bothered by, that those who objected to it were shrill and hysterical, and they found justification, or at least sufficient mitigation, to look the other way and acquiesce to the notion that the Bush administration could break the law at will and that there ought to be no real consequences arising from that behavior.

For Hiatt to now act all bewildered and ask "why is it only now" that we are learning of this misconduct is disingenuous in the extreme, given that so much of the cause for that is found in the behavior of the Fred Hiatts of the world. Perhaps, though, the Comey revelations are so extreme that the Beltway establishment can no longer pretend that there is a normal state of affairs with regard to how our government is operating. ...

The White House can still pretend, of course. Pres. Bush refused, at a press appearance today, to say whether it's true that he personally called John Ashcroft's wife to prevail on her to allow Gonzales and Card to visit her husband in the ICU so that they could get his signature on the extension of the NSA surveillance program:

During a press conference today, President Bush was confronted about recent accusations made by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey regarding the White House’s shocking efforts to seek legal sanction for its warrantless wiretapping program. According to Comey, Bush personally directed a White House effort to bypass Comey’s authority and seek approval from John Ashcroft, who was then hospitalized and in intensive care.

The New York Times writes today that “Americans need to know who dispatched Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital bed.”

NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell pressed Bush on this point. “Sir, did you send your then Chief of Staff and White House Counsel to the bedside of John Ashcroft while he was ill to get him to approve that program,” she asked, “and do you believe that kind of conduct from White House officials is appropriate?”

Bush twice dodged the question entirely. “Kelly, there’s a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn’t happen. I’m not going to talk about it.” He added, “I’m not going to move the issue forward by talking about” it.

Bush then proceeded to fall back on what Glenn calls his "royal hubris" reason when asked to explain his disregard for the law or (in this case) common human decency:

... Bush categorically refuses to answer questions about whether he sent Card and Gonzales to obtain Ashcroft's authorization for his illegal eavesdropping while Ashcroft was in intensive care. The reason, of course, is because the Terrorists are out there and are scary and want to kill us. Therefore, Bush does not have to answer questions about what he did.

Here is the unabridged version:

Q: There’s been some very dramatic testimony before the Senate this week from one of your former top Justice Department officials who describes a scene that some Senators called stunning, about a time when the warrantless wiretap program was being reviewed. Sir, did you send your then chief of staff and White House counsel to the bedside of John Ashcroft while he was ill to get him to approve that program, and do you believe that kind of conduct from White House officials is appropriate?

BUSH: Kelly, there’s a lot of speculation about what happened and what didn’t happen. I’m not going to talk about it. It’s a very sensitive program. I will tell you that one, the program was necessary to protect the American people and it’s still necessary, because there’s still an enemy that wants to do us harm, and therefore I have an obligation to put in place programs that honor the civil liberties of the American people — a program that was, in this case, constantly reviewed, and briefed to the United States Congress. And the program, as I say, is an essential part of protecting this country, and so there will be all kinds of talk about it. As i say, I’m not going to move the issue forward by talking about something as highly classified subject. I will tell you, however, that the program was necessary.

Q: Was it on your order, sir?

BUSH: As I said, the program is a necessary program that was constantly reviewed and constantly briefed to the Congress. It’s an important part of protecting the United States, and it’s still an important part of our protection, because there’s still an enemy that would like to attack us, no matter how calm it may seem in America, an enemy lurks and they would like to strike. They would like to do harm to the American people, because they have an agenda. They want to impose an ideology. They want us to retreat from the world. They want to find safe haven, and these just aren’t empty words. These are the words of al Qaeda themselves, and so we will put in place programs to protect the American people that honor the civil liberties of our people and programs that we constantly brief to Congress.

There is much more commentary on this scandal -- far more than I can possible find time to read, much less blog. If you wish, you can read more here and here.

Cross-posted at Shakesville.

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