The hospital visit by Mr. Gonzales and Andrew H. Card Jr., who was then White House chief of staff, has been disclosed before, but never in such dramatic, personal detail. Mr. Comey’s account offered a rare and titillating glimpse of a Washington power struggle, complete with a late-night showdown in the White House after a dramatic encounter in a darkened hospital room — in short, elements of a potboiler paperback novel.
Mr. Comey related his story to the committee, which is investigating various aspects of Mr. Gonzales’s tenure as Attorney General, including the recent dismissals of eight United States attorneys and allegations that applicants for traditionally nonpartisan career prosecutor jobs were screened for political loyalties.
Although Mr. Comey declined to say specifically what the business was that sent Mr. Gonzales to the bedside of Mr. Ashcroft in George Washington University Hospital, where he lay critically ill with pancreatitis, it was clear that the subject was the National Security Agency’s secret domestic surveillance program. The signature of Mr. Ashcroft or his surrogate was needed by the next day, March 11, in order to renew the program, which was still secret at that time.
Since the existence of the program was disclosed by The New York Times in late 2005, it has been reported that it was the subject of a tense debate at the highest levels of the Bush administration, with some officials concerned that the program was not adequately supervised, and others having more fundamental worries.
Around the time of the hospital incident, the White House suspended parts of the program for several months and imposed tougher requirements on the National Security Agency on how the program was to be used.Mr. Comey told the committee today that when Mr. Ashcroft was ill and he was in charge at the Justice Department, he told the White House he would not certify the program again “as to its legality.”
On the night of March 10, as he was being driven home by his security detail, he got a telephone call from Mr. Ashcroft’s chief of staff, who had just been contacted by Mr. Ashcroft’s wife, Janet.
Although Mrs. Ashcroft had banned visitors and telephone calls to her husband’s hospital room, she had just gotten a call from the White House telling her that Mr. Card and Mr. Gonzales were on their way to see her husband, Mr. Comey testified. “I have some recollection that the call was from the president himself, but I don’t know that for sure,” Mr. Comey said.
He said his security detail then sped him to the hospital with sirens blaring and emergency lights flashing, while he telephoned the director of the F.B.I., Robert S. Mueller 3d, from the car. Mr. Mueller shared his sense of urgency: “He said, ‘I’ll meet you at the hospital right now,’ ” Mr. Comey testified.
When he got to the hospital, Mr. Comey recalled, “I got out of the car and ran up — literally, ran up the stairs with my security detail.”
“What was your concern?” asked Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who was the chairman of today’s committee session.
“I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to do that,” Mr. Comey replied.
Mr. Comey recalled arriving at the darkened hospital room, where Mr. Ashcroft seemed hardly aware of his surroundings. For a time, only Mr. Comey and the Ashcrofts were in the room. Meanwhile, Mr. Mueller, who had not yet arrived, told Mr. Comey’s security detail by phone “not to allow me to be removed from the room under any circumstances,” Mr. Comey testified.
Minutes later, he said, Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Card entered the room, with Mr. Gonzales carrying an envelope. “And then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there, to seek his approval for a matter,” Mr. Comey related.
“And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me,” Mr. Comey went on: He raised his head from the pillow, reiterated his objections to the program, then lay back down, pointing to Mr. Comey as the attorney general during his illness.
In the NYTimes