A new year brings new revelations. Erich Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times reports:
WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 – A top Justice Department official objected in 2004 to aspects of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use amid concerns about its legality and oversight, according to officials with knowledge of the tense internal debate. The concerns appear to have played a part in the temporary suspension of the secret program.
The concerns prompted two of President Bush’s most senior aides – Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general – to make an emergency visit to a Washington hospital in March 2004 to discuss the program’s future and try to win the needed approval from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery, the officials said.
The unusual meeting was prompted because Mr. Ashcroft’s top deputy, James B. Comey, who was acting as attorney general in his absence, had indicated he was unwilling to give his approval to certifying central aspects of the program, as required under the White House procedures set up to oversee it.
With Mr. Comey unwilling to sign off on the program, the White House went to Mr. Ashcroft – who had been in the intensive care unit at George Washington University Hospital with pancreatitis and was housed under unusually tight security – because “they needed him for certification,” according to an official briefed on the episode. The official, like others who discussed the issue, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the program.
Mr. Comey declined to comment, and Mr. Gonzales could not be reached.
Accounts differed as to exactly what was said at the hospital meeting between Mr. Ashcroft and the White House advisers. But some officials said that Mr. Ashcroft, like his deputy, appeared reluctant to give Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales his authorization to continue with aspects of the program in light of concerns among some senior government officials about whether the proper oversight was in place at the security agency and whether the president had the legal and constitutional authority to conduct such an operation.
It is unclear whether the White House ultimately persuaded Mr. Ashcroft to give his approval to the program after the meeting or moved ahead without it.
The White House and Mr. Ashcroft, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment Saturday on the hospital meeting. A White House spokeswoman, Jeannie Mamo, said she could not discuss any aspect of the meeting or the internal debate surrounding it, but said: “As the president has stated, the intelligence activities that have been under way to prevent future terrorist attacks have been approved at the highest levels of the Justice Department.”
The domestic eavesdropping program was publicly disclosed in mid-December by The New York Times. President Bush, in acknowledging the existence of the program in a televised appearance two weeks ago, said that tight controls had been imposed over the surveillance operation and that the program was reviewed every 45 days by top government officials, including at the Justice Department.
“The review includes approval by our nation’s top legal officials, including the attorney general and the counsel to the president,” Mr. Bush said, adding that he had personally reauthorized the program’s use more than 30 times since it began. He gave no indication of any internal dissent over the reauthorization.
Remember, this isn’t about whether Bush is going to install a dictatorship with all the trimmings, but whether the rule of law binds the executive branch. If having limited, expeditious, after-the-fact court oversight of domestic surveillance is too much of a hinderance for this administration, they’ve had plenty of time to seek a change in the law. Whatever excuse they had after 9/11 has long since evaporated.