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Gonzales Hospital Episode Detailed
The crisis in March 2004 stemmed from a review of the program by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which raised "concerns as to our ability to certify its legality," according to Comey's testimony. Ashcroft was briefed on the findings on March 4 and agreed that changes needed to be made, Comey said.
That afternoon, Ashcroft was rushed to George Washington University Hospital with a severe case of gallstone pancreatitis; on March 9, his gallbladder was removed. The standoff between Justice and White House officials came the next night, after Comey had refused to certify the surveillance program on the eve of its 45-day reauthorization deadline, he testified.
About 8 p.m. on March 10, Comey said that his security detail was driving him home when he received an urgent call from Ashcroft's chief of staff, David Ayres, who had just received an anxious call from Ashcroft's wife, Janet. The White House -- possibly the president -- had called, and Card and Gonzales were on their way.
Furious, Comey said he ordered his security detail to turn the car toward the hospital, careening down Constitution Avenue. Comey said he raced up the stairs of the hospital with his staff, beating Card and Gonzales to Ashcroft's room.
"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," Comey said, saying that Ashcroft "seemed pretty bad off."
Mueller, who also was rushing to the hospital, spoke by phone to the security detail protecting Ashcroft, ordering them not to allow Card or Gonzales to eject Comey from the hospital room.
Card and Gonzales arrived a few minutes later, with Gonzales holding an envelope that contained the executive order for the program. Comey said that, after listening to their entreaties, Ashcroft rebuffed the White House aides.
"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 stunned me," Comey said. Then, he said, Ashcroft added: "But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general. There is the attorney general," and pointed at Comey, who was appointed acting attorney general when Ashcroft fell ill.
Later, Card ordered an 11 p.m. meeting at the White House. But Comey said he told Card that he would not go on his own, pulling then-Solicitor General Theodore Olson from a dinner party to serve as witness to anything Card or Gonzales told him. "After the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness present," Comey testified. "He replied, 'What conduct? We were just there to wish him well.' "
The next day, as terrorist bombs killed more than 200 commuters on rail lines in Madrid, the White House approved the executive order without any signature from the Justice Department certifying its legality. Comey responded by drafting his letter of resignation, effective the next day, March 12.
"I couldn't stay if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis," he said. "I just simply couldn't stay." Comey testified he was going to be joined in a mass resignation by some of the nation's top law enforcement officers: Ashcroft, Mueller, Ayres and Comey's own chief of staff.
Ayres persuaded Comey to delay his resignation, Comey testified. "Mr. Ashcroft's chief of staff asked me something that meant a great deal to him, and that is that I not resign until Mr. Ashcroft was well enough to resign with me," he said.
The threat became moot after an Oval Office meeting March 12 with Bush, Comey said. After meeting separately with Comey and Mueller, Bush gave his support to making changes in the program, Comey testified. The administration has never disclosed what those changes were.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.