By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Vice President Cheney told Justice Department officials that he disagreed with their objections to a secret surveillance program during a high-level White House meeting in March 2004, a former senior Justice official told senators yesterday.
The meeting came one day before White House officials tried to get approval for the same program from then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who lay recovering from surgery in a hospital, according to former deputy attorney general James B. Comey.
Comey's disclosures, made in response to written questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicate that Cheney and his aides were more closely involved than previously known in a fierce internal battle over the legality of the warrantless surveillance program. The program allowed the National Security Agency to monitor phone calls and e-mails between the United States and overseas.
Comey said that Cheney's office later blocked the promotion of a senior Justice Department lawyer, Patrick Philbin, because of his role in raising concerns about the surveillance.
The disclosures also provide further details about the role played by then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales. He visited Ashcroft in his hospital room and wrote an internal memorandum on the surveillance program shortly afterward, according to Comey's responses. Gonzales is now the attorney general. He faces possible congressional votes of no-confidence because of his handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
"How are you, General?" Gonzales asked Ashcroft at the hospital, according to Comey.
"Not well," replied Ashcroft, who had just undergone gallbladder surgery and was battling pancreatitis.
The new details follow Comey's gripping testimony last month about the visit by Gonzales and Andrew H. Card Jr., then President Bush's chief of staff, to Ashcroft's hospital bed on the night of March 10, 2004. The two Bush aides tried to persuade Ashcroft to renew the authorization of the NSA surveillance program, after Comey and other Justice Department officials had said they would not certify the legality of the effort, according to the testimony and other officials.
Ashcroft refused, noting that Comey had been designated as acting attorney general during his illness.
The episode prompted sharp criticism from Democrats and some Republicans, who questioned whether Gonzales and Card were attempting to take advantage of a sick man to get around legal objections from government lawyers. It is unclear who directed the two Bush aides to make the visit.
Democrats said yesterday that the new details from Comey raise further questions about the role of Cheney and other White House officials in the episode.
"Mr. Comey has confirmed what we suspected for a while -- that White House hands guided Justice Department business," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). "The vice president's fingerprints are all over the effort to strong-arm Justice on the NSA program, and the obvious next question is: Exactly what role did the president play?"
A White House spokesman declined to comment.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the surveillance program "was always subject to rigorous oversight and review. . . . We have acknowledged that there have been disagreements about other intelligence activities, as one would expect."
Democrats have criticized Gonzales for testifying last year that there were no "serious disagreements" about the program.
According to Comey, the hospital visit was preceded by a March 9, 2004, meeting at the White House on the Justice Department objections. It was attended by Cheney; Gonzales; Card; Cheney's counsel then, David S. Addington; and others, Comey said.
Comey also named eight Justice Department officials who were prepared to quit if the White House had not backed down, including FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, current U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg of Alexandria and Jack Goldsmith, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel and led an internal legal review of the surveillance program.
Comey said that the review "focused on current operations during late 2003 and early 2004, and the legal basis for the program." He declined to answer detailed questions about the program or the review, citing restrictions on classified information.
Bush confirmed the existence of the surveillance effort after news reports in December 2005, saying it was authorized after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and was vital to protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. The program has since been put under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees clandestine eavesdropping in the United States.
Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.