Standing Up to Angler

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A SERIES by The Post's Barton Gellman, "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," offers shocking new details on the unprecedented influence exerted in the Bush administration by Vice President Cheney, especially on national security matters.

The two-part series, adapted from Mr. Gellman's forthcoming book by the same name, focuses on the March 2004 efforts by Mr. Cheney and his aide, David S. Addington, to win reauthorization for a top-secret warrantless wiretapping program. It chronicles the last days of what had been their months-long fight against Justice Department officials who had grudgingly but emphatically come to the conclusion that the program, as configured, was illegal. James B. Comey was acting attorney general during this time, when Attorney General John D. Ashcroft was hospitalized.

The most startling revelation is that President Bush apparently was unaware -- until the day after he signed off on the program's renewal -- of any opposition inside the Justice Department. He was also apparently in the dark about the number of officials who were poised to resign in protest. The list included Mr. Ashcroft, Mr. Comey, Office of Legal Counsel chief Jack L. Goldsmith, Justice Department national security expert Patrick F. Philbin, Criminal Division chief Christopher A. Wray, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, FBI general counsel Valerie E. Caproni and CIA general counsel Scott W. Mueller. Neither Mr. Cheney nor then-White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales or then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. bothered to tell the president of the looming resignations. Instead, they tried to persuade the ailing Mr. Ashcroft to sign the reauthorization from his hospital bed. When that failed, they argued that the president, relying on his powers as commander in chief, could unilaterally reauthorize the program. It took an intervention by Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, to inform the president about the possible departures and urge him to speak with Justice Department officials directly. Mr. Bush ultimately agreed to the legal changes that Mr. Comey and his allies deemed necessary.

While we acknowledge that Mr. Cheney and Mr. Addington believed strongly in the need to preserve the wiretapping program, their refusal to work within the administration to bring the program into legal compliance was inexcusable. The Justice Department officials and others were as hawkish on national security as the vice president and his aide were. They, too, were gravely concerned about the harm that might befall the country without such an operation. But they saw no contradiction in protecting the country while also being loyal to the rule of law. And despite withering pressure from the White House and the potential harm to their own careers, they had the courage to stand firm on that principle.

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