An Interesting Twist On The Warrantless Wiretaps Story

Congressional Quarterly has this interesting item about a near meltdown in the Bush Administration over the President’s warrantless wiretap program:

Former Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee today that he, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, their top aides and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III nearly resigned in early 2004 after the administration went ahead with a classified program without Justice Department approval.

Comey recounted a dramatic March 2004 showdown between top White House and Justice Department officials, including then-White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, that was only resolved after President Bush intervened.

The White House, it seems wanted to reauthorize the program, and the Justice Department, including Comey, Ashcroft, and others, was opposing the reauthorization to the point that they nearly all resigned:

Comey said he prepared a resignation letter after the administration decided to go ahead with the classified program without his approval. He said that he believed his chief of staff, Ashcroft, Mueller and Ashcroft’s chief of staff would have resigned as well.

After Bush intervened, the Justice Department was able to “put this matter on a footing” that he felt he could accept, Comey said.

Frankly, it’s too bad that Comey and the others didn’t have the courage to stand up to the President on this one. That is precisely the problem that has faced the Bush Administration in its zeal to set aside civil liberties in the name of the War on Terror. Perhaps if someone had said no and gone public, people would have started questioning what they were doing a long time ago.

The Washington Post makes this point:

Mr. Comey’s vivid depiction, worthy of a Hollywood script, showed the lengths to which the administration and the man who is now attorney general were willing to go to pursue the surveillance program. First, they tried to coerce a man in intensive care — a man so sick he had transferred the reins of power to Mr. Comey — to grant them legal approval. Having failed, they were willing to defy the conclusions of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and pursue the surveillance without Justice’s authorization. Only in the face of the prospect of mass resignations — Mr. Comey, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and most likely Mr. Ashcroft himself — did the president back down.


The dramatic details should not obscure the bottom line: the administration’s alarming willingness, championed by, among others, Vice President Cheney and his counsel, David Addington, to ignore its own lawyers. Remember, this was a Justice Department that had embraced an expansive view of the president’s inherent constitutional powers, allowing the administration to dispense with following the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Justice’s conclusions are supposed to be the final word in the executive branch about what is lawful or not, and the administration has emphasized since the warrantless wiretapping story broke that it was being done under the department’s supervision.

But. as we’ve already learned, the law means little to the Bush Administration