I don't suppose I imagined that anything could make me feel kindly about former Attorney General John Ashcroft, but this story just might have done the trick. The background is the unwarranted National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program that included eavesdropping on people in the United States, a program I still believe violated (and still does) the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Apparently by 2004 a number of people in the Justice Department thought so too, and they came up with some modifications they wanted to introduce to make it legal (or perhaps less egregiously illegal -- the details are still classified).
The rest of the story reads like a spy novel or a fanciful movie.
Anyway, as James Comey, former Deputy Attorney General, the Number 2 guy under Ashcroft, testified yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the department had decided not to sign off on the next 45-day extension of the program back in 2004. In March 2004 John Ashcroft was taken sick with a severe pancreatic disorder and hospitalized. Comey became acting Attorney General and told the White House he wouldn't sign the form. Then he learned that then-White House chief of staff Andy Card and then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales planned to race over to Ashcroft's hospital room -- even though his wife had banned all visitors, he was so sick -- to get him to sign the form.
Comey was in a department vehicle at the time, and he raced over -- sirens and all -- to get there first. He told Ashcroft what the White House boys were planning but wasn't sure if he was conscious enough to understand. When Card and Gonzales arrived they started to explain what they wanted, and Ashcroft had just enough strength to rise weakly from his sickbed and say unequivocally that he wouldn't sign off.
"I was angry, Comey said. "I had 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. I thought he had conducted himself in a way that demonstrated a strength I had never seen before, but still I thought it was improper."
To say the least.
Bush extended the program anyway, but then met with Comey and agreed to the changes Justice wanted. The program was then extended with modifications three or four weeks later.
So Ashcroft and Comey did something noble and Gonzales and Card did something ignoble. We already knew these guys had little respect for legal niceties, arguing constantly that in time of war -- never mind that no war had ever been declared by Congress, as the Constitution requires -- the president's powers were virtually limitless. Now we know they were willing to try to exploit a colleague's sickness. Apparently Comey, Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and other senior Justice Department offocials were prepared to resign over the incident and issue, which seems to have induced the White House to relent. Good for them. I have a new-found respect.