NYT: Ashcroft Asked to Okay NSA Surveillance Order From Hospital Bed
The New York Times reports major news in the NSA warrantless electronic surveillance story: When it came time for an extension of the program in 2004, former Attorney General John Ashcroft was in intensive care recovering from pancreatitis. Then Deputy AG James Comey objected to some aspects of the program and refused to sign off on it. Alberto Gonzales (then White House Counsel) and Andrew Card actually went to see Ashcroft in the hospital to get him to sign off on it.
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.
It doesn't sound like they got Ashcroft fully on board:
What is known is that in early 2004, about the time of the hospital visit, the White House suspended parts of the program for several months and moved ahead with more stringent requirements on the security agency on how the program was used, in part to guard against abuses. The concerns within the Justice Department appear to have led, at least in part, to the decision to suspend and revamp the program, officials said. The Justice Department then oversaw a secret audit of the surveillance program.
More big news: In 2002, even then Deputy AG Larry Thompson was kept in the dark.
At its outset in 2002, the surveillance operation was so highly classified that even Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general to Mr. Ashcroft, who was active in most of the government's most classified counterterrorism operations, was not given access to the program.
That led to uncertainties about the chain of command in overseeing law enforcement activities connected to the program, officials said, and it appears to have spurred concerns within the Justice Department over its use. Mr. Thompson's successor, Mr. Comey, was eventually authorized to take part in the program and to review intelligence material that grew out of it, and officials said he played a part in overseeing the reforms that were put in place in 2004.
It sounds like some former Justice Department lawyers or lawyers in the White House Counsel's office believe Bush's warrantless spying plan was illegal and are talking. I doubt it's anyone high up like Comey or Thompson, who don't talk out of school, but those in the middle ranks. It's time for a special counsel to be appointed.
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