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Conflict Over Spying Led White House to Brink

David Addington, the vice president's lawyer, kept in his office controlling documents that gave strategic direction to the nation's largest spy agency.
David Addington, the vice president's lawyer, kept in his office controlling documents that gave strategic direction to the nation's largest spy agency. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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* * *

Mike Hayden and Vito Potenza drove down from NSA headquarters after lunch on Feb. 19, 2004, to give Jim Comey his first briefing on the program. In the Justice Department's vault-like SCIF, a sensitive compartmented information facility, Hayden got Comey's attention fast.

"I'm so glad you're getting read in, because now I won't be alone at the table when John Kerry is elected president," the NSA director said [17].

The witness table, Hayden meant. Congressional hearing, investigation of some kind. Nothing good. Kerry had the Democratic nomination just about locked up and was leading Bush in national polls. Hardly anyone in the intelligence field believed the next administration would climb as far out on a legal limb as this one had.

"Hayden was all dog-and-pony, and this is probably what happened to those poor folks in Congress, too," Comey told his chief of staff after the briefing. "You think for a second, 'Wow, that's great,' and then if you try actually to explain it back to yourself, you don't get it. You scratch your head afterward and you think, 'What the hell did that guy just tell me?' "

The NSA chief insisted on limiting surveillance to e-mails, phone calls and faxes in which one party was overseas, deflecting arguments from Cheney and Addington that he could just as well collect communications inside the United States.

That was one reason Hayden hated when reporters referred to "domestic surveillance." He made his point with a folksy analogy: He had taken "literally hundreds of domestic flights," he said, and never "landed in Waziristan." That sounded good. But the surveillance statutes said a warrant was required if either end of the conversation was in U.S. territory. The American side of the program -- the domestic surveillance -- was its distinguishing feature.

By the end of February, Goldsmith and Philbin had reached their conclusion: Parts of the surveillance operation had no support in law. Comey was so disturbed that he drove to Langley one evening to compare notes with Scott W. Muller, the general counsel at the CIA. Muller "got it immediately," agreeing with the Goldsmith-Philbin analysis, Comey said.

"At the end of the day, I concluded something I didn't ever think I would conclude, and that is that Pat Philbin and Jack Goldsmith understood this activity much better than Michael Hayden did," he said.

On Thursday, March 4, Comey brought the findings to Ashcroft, conferring for an hour one-on-one. Three senior Justice Department officials said in interviews that Ashcroft gave his full backing. He was not going to sign the next presidential order -- due in one week, March 11 -- unless the White House agreed to a list of required changes.

* * *

A few hours later, Ashcroft was reviewing notes for a news conference in Alexandria when his color changed and he sat down heavily. An aide, Mark Corallo, ducked out and returned to find the attorney general laid out on his back. By nightfall, Ashcroft was taken to George Washington University Medical Center in severe pain, suffering acute gallstone pancreatitis. Comey became acting attorney general on Friday.

The next day -- Saturday, March 6, five days before the March 11 deadline -- Goldsmith brought the Justice Department verdict to the White House. He told Gonzales and Addington for the first time that Justice would not certify the program.

A long silence fell. It lasted three full days.

Gonzales phoned Goldsmith at home before sunrise on Tuesday, March 9, with two days left before the program expired. Obviously there was bad chemistry with Addington. Why not come in and talk, he asked, just the two of us?

Goldsmith arrived at the White House in morning twilight. Alone in his office, Gonzales begged the OLC chief to reconsider. Gonzales tried to dispute Goldsmith's analysis, but he was in over his head. At least let us have more time, he said. Goldsmith said he couldn't do that.

The time had come for the vice president to step in. Proxies were not getting the job done. Cheney was going to have to take hold of this thing himself.

Even now, after months of debate, Cheney did not enlist the president. Bush was across the river in Arlington, commending the winners of the Malcolm Baldrige awards for quality improvement in private industry [18]. Campaign season had come already, and the president was doing a lot of that kind of thing. That week he had a fundraiser in Dallas, a "Bush-Cheney 2004 event" in Santa Clara, Calif., and a meet-and-greet at a rodeo in Houston.

Soon after hearing what had happened between Goldsmith and Gonzales, the vice president asked Andy Card to set up a meeting at noon with Mike Hayden, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and John McLaughlin from the CIA (substituting for his boss, George J. Tenet). Cheney spoke to them in Card's office, the door closed.

Four hours later, at 4 p.m., the same cast reconvened. This time the Justice contingent was invited. Comey, Goldsmith and Philbin found the titans of the intelligence establishment lined up, a bunch of grave-faced analysts behind them for added mass. The spy chiefs brought no lawyers. The law was not the point. This meeting, described by officials with access to two sets of contemporaneous notes, was about telling Justice to set its qualms aside.

The staging had been arranged for maximum impact. Cheney sat at the head of Card's rectangular table, pivoting left to face the acting attorney general. The two men were close enough to touch. Card sat grimly at Cheney's right, directly across from Comey. There was plenty of eye contact all around.

This program, Cheney said, was vital. Turning it off would leave us blind. Hayden, the NSA chief, pitched in: Even if the program had yet to produce blockbuster results, it was the only real hope of discovering sleeper agents before they could act.

"How can you possibly be reversing course on something of this importance after all this time?" Cheney asked [19].

Comey held his ground. The program had to operate within the law. The Justice Department knew a lot more now than it had before, and Ashcroft and Comey had reached this decision together.

"I will accept for purposes of discussion that it is as valuable as you say it is," Comey said. "That only makes this more painful. It doesn't change the analysis. If I can't find a lawful basis for something, your telling me you really, really need to do it doesn't help me."

"Others see it differently," Cheney said.

There was only one of those, really. John Yoo had been out of the picture for nearly a year. It was all Addington.

"The analysis is flawed, in fact facially flawed," Comey said. "No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it."

Gonzales said nothing. Addington stood by the window, over Cheney's shoulder. He had heard a bellyful.

"Well, I'm a lawyer and I did," Addington said, glaring at Comey.

"No good lawyer," Comey said [20].

In for a dime, in for a dollar.

Addington started disputing the particulars. Now he was on Jack Goldsmith's turf. From across the room the head of the Office of Legal Counsel jumped in. And right there in front of the big guys, the two of them bickered in the snarly tones of a couple who knew all of each other's lines.

* * *

As the sun went down on Tuesday, March 9, the president of the United States had yet to learn that his Justice Department was heading off the rails. A train wreck was coming, but Cheney wanted to handle it. Neither Card nor Gonzales was in the habit of telling him no.

"I don't think it would be appropriate for the president to be engaged in the to-and-fro until it is, you know, penultimate," Card said in a recent interview [21]. "I guess the definition of 'penultimate' could vary from four steps to three steps to two steps to one step. That's why you have White House counsel and people who do the legal work."

Participants in the afternoon meeting, including some of Cheney's recruits, left the room shaken. Mueller worked for the attorney general, and the FBI's central mission was to "uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States." Hayden's neck, and his agency, were on the line. The NSA director believed in the program, believed he was doing the right thing. But keep on going when the Justice Department said no?

Early the next morning -- Wednesday, March 10, with 24 hours to deadline -- Hayden was back in the White House. One colleague saw him conferring in worried whispers with Homeland Security adviser John A. Gordon, a mentor and fellow Air Force general, much the senior of the two. They huddled in the West Wing lobby, Hayden on a love seat and Gordon in a chair [22].

Jim Comey was in the White House that morning, too, arriving early for the president's regular 8:30 terrorism brief. He had heard nothing since the discouraging meeting the day before.

Comey found Frances Fragos Townsend, an old friend, waiting just outside the Oval Office, standing by the appointment secretary's desk. She was Bush's deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism. Comey had known her since their days as New York mob prosecutors in the 1980s. Since then, Townsend had run the Justice Department's intelligence office. She lived and breathed surveillance law.

Comey took a chance. He pulled her back out to the hallway between the Roosevelt Room and the Cabinet Room.

"If I say a word, would you tell me whether you recognize it?" he asked quietly.

He did. She didn't. The program's classified code name left her blank. Comey tried to talk around the subject.

"I think this is something I am not a part of," Townsend said [23]. "I can't have this conversation." Like John Gordon and deputy national security adviser Steven J. Hadley and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, she was out of the loop [24].

Oh, God, Comey remembers thinking. They've held this so tight. Even Fran Townsend. The president's counterterrorism adviser is not read in? Comey towered over his diminutive friend. He chose his words carefully.

"I need to know," he said, "whether your boss recognizes that word, and whether she's read in on a particular program. Because we had a meeting here yesterday on that topic that I would have expected her to be at."

He meant national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Comey was hoping for an ally, or maybe rescue.

"I felt very alone, with some justification," Comey recalled. "The attorney general is in intensive care. There's a train coming down the tracks that's about to run me and my career and the Department of Justice over. I was exploring every way to get off the tracks I could."

Townsend had a pretty good guess about what was on Comey's mind. Cheney had kept her out of the loop, but it was hard to hide a warrantless domestic surveillance program completely from the president's chief terrorism adviser.

"I'm not the right person to talk to," she told her friend, her voice close to a whisper. Comey ought to go see Rice.

"I'm going to tell her you've got concerns," Townsend said.

Comey's concerns no longer interested Cheney. The vice president had tried to back him down. That didn't work.

Only one day remained before the surveillance program expired. Time for Cheney to take the fight somewhere else.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report. Tomorrow: Bush's dilemma.

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