The Hospital Visit, Revisited

Monday, August 20, 2007

HOW MANY more times will Alberto R. Gonzales's credibility have to be shredded before his own sense of decency compels him to step down?

If Mr. Gonzales were merely the victim of partisan sniping, the damage to his credibility wouldn't be as substantial, his effectiveness not as diminished -- and we wouldn't be calling for his ouster. But his word and his judgment have been questioned countless times by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and, perhaps more damning, by Republican appointees who worked with him in the Bush administration.

Now comes more information to contradict Mr. Gonzales. The source: none other than Robert S. Mueller III, director of the FBI. In heavily redacted notes turned over last Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Mueller describes a March 10, 2004, visit by Mr. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, and Andrew H. Card Jr., then the White House chief of staff, to the hospital room of John D. Ashcroft, the attorney general. Mr. Ashcroft had undergone gall bladder surgery and had temporarily transferred his authority to Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey. As acting attorney general, Mr. Comey refused to give his blessing to an administration surveillance program set to expire. Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card had gone to the hospital hoping to get a different verdict from Mr. Ashcroft. But Mr. Ashcroft declined, noting that only Mr. Comey was empowered to take such action. Mr. Comey, in sworn testimony this year, described the visit as an attempt by Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card "to take advantage of a very sick man."

In July, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Gonzales defended the visit by saying that he did not "intend to get any approval from General Ashcroft if in fact he wasn't fully competent to make that decision." He described Mr. Ashcroft as "lucid" during the visit.

What do Mr. Mueller's notes show about Mr. Ashcroft's condition that evening? "Saw AG. Janet Ashcroft in the room. AG in chair; is feeble, barely articulate, clearly stressed."

Trying to take advantage of a hospitalized man is despicable. That the behavior was exhibited by the future attorney general in an effort to circumvent the chain of command to get approval for a surveillance program the administration's top lawyers had already said was unacceptable is nothing less than disgraceful.

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