WASHINGTON - A former senior Justice Department official testified yesterday that he felt then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales tried to pressure a bedridden Attorney General John Ashcroft to support a Bush administration spying program in 2004 while Ashcroft was hospitalized - fueling renewed calls by Democrats for Gonzales' ouster.
James B. Comey, the former deputy attorney general who briefly served as acting attorney general during Ashcroft's illness, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the White House had approved the surveillance plan without his consent or that of Ashcroft. Comey said he and Ashcroft had planned to resign over the incident, but relented after Bush agreed to make changes.
In the first eyewitness account of the hospital episode, Comey said Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew Card made a late-night visit to Ashcroft's hospital room to obtain his approval of a classified surveillance program - a program Comey had opposed as acting attorney general during Ashcroft's hospitalization for gallbladder pancreatitis.
Comey declined to identify the program at the hearing, but lawmakers later identified it as the warrantless electronic surveillance program the administration launched through the National Security Agency after the Sept. 11 attacks. Comey said he and Ashcroft had concluded there were major legal problems with the program and decided before Ashcroft became ill that they would oppose it.
Comey testified he viewed the late-night hospital visit as an untoward effort to do an end-run around his opposition and approach a weakened Ashcroft while he was in intensive care.
Comey said: "I was very upset. I was angry. I thought I just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man, who did not have the powers of the attorney general, because they had been transferred to me."
The encounter took place March 10, 2004; the spy program, which was being periodically reviewed by administration lawyers, was due to expire the next day.
Comey described being alerted to the hospital visit after a late-night call from Ashcroft's chief of staff, David Ayres, who relayed that Ashcroft's wife had just received a message from the White House that Gonzales and Card were en route.
Comey said he, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller 3d and others agreed to meet at the hospital, in essence to protect Ashcroft from any effort at being coerced. Shortly thereafter, he said, Gonzales - carrying an envelope apparently containing the presidential spying order - arrived with Card.
"They greeted the attorney general very briefly. And then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there - to seek his approval for a matter, and explained what the matter was," Comey said.
"And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me," Comey continued. "He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter . . . and then laid his head back down on the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them, 'But that doesn't matter, because I'm not the attorney general.' " He said Ashcroft then pointed to Comey as the acting attorney general. Card and Gonzales left.
According to Comey, Card angrily called later to demand Comey meet him at the White House.
"I responded that, after the conduct I had just witnessed, I would not meet with him without a witness. He replied: 'What conduct? We were just there to wish him well,' " Comey testified. Comey said he tracked down then-Solicitor General Ted Olson at a dinner party, and Olson agreed to be the witness.
Comey said the program was renewed that March 11 without his approval. He said Bush agreed to restructure the program after meetings the next day with Comey and Mueller at the White House.
Democrats said the testimony was further evidence of Gonzales' lack of fitness to serve.
"I would say what happened in that hospital room crystallized Mr. Gonzales' view about the rule of law: that he holds it in minimum low regard," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.) said at the hearing.
The Justice Department said in a statement that it could not comment on "internal discussions that may or may have not taken place concerning classified intelligence activities."
At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow said Bush has "full confidence in Alberto Gonzales." Snow declined to discuss Comey's testimony, which he described as "old conversations."
Snow said: "You've got somebody who's got splashy testimony on Capitol Hill. Good for him."
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said yesterday
that he had relied on his departing deputy more than on any other aide to decide which U.S. attorneys should be fired last year.
His comments came less than a day after Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said he would resign - a decision that people familiar with McNulty's plans said was hastened by the controversy over the purge of eight prosecutors.
"At the end of the day, the recommendations reflected the views of the deputy attorney general," said Gonzales at a National Press Club forum. "He signed off on the names." McNulty "would know best about the qualifications and the experiences of the United States attorneys' community, and he signed off on the names."
McNulty declined comment. He has acknowledged approving the list of prosecutors who were ordered to leave last fall,
a few weeks before the firings were made official. Documents released by the Justice Department show McNulty was not closely involved in picking all the U.S. attorneys who were put on the list.
- Associated Press